When I was a teenager, I went through a libertarian phase. A lot of factors contributed to it. One was my desire to connect with my father, who was (and remains) an avid Rush Limbaugh fan. Another was my desire to piss of my high school history teacher, who was obnoxiously liberal in a way I’d never encountered before (for example, he had the class sing union songs, etc.). I think what appealed to me most, however, was the simplicity of it all, which I took as a measure of its elegance and explanatory power. So few principles to explain every important question of public policy! And best of all: despite its simplicity and obvious correctness, so few people had embraced it. I was part of an intellectual elite, far above the benighted masses.
In other words, I went through a libertarian phase because I was a teenage boy and smart teenage boys tend to be arrogant dicks. I grew out of it, though, not through some kind of epiphany or dramatic encouragement, but out of simple boredom. The answers no longer seemed satisfyingly elegant — they just seemed repetitive and predictable. Even leaving aside the question of their truth value (which I was really in no position to assess), there just wasn’t enough “there” to hold my interest.
Things might have gone differently, though. I was in a good high school that had honors and advanced placement courses that challenged me intellectually in ways that my libertarian ideals never could. I was also given the space to explore religion more intellectually, opening up vastly more complex — and to me, more existentially vital — questions. If I hadn’t been in such an intellectually fruitful environment, however, I imagine that I would have rested content with the meager satisfactions of libertarianism, because at least it was something. Indeed, if other forces hadn’t intervened, I might have become gradually innoculated against other forms of intellectual stimulation, cherishing my self-image as a bold truth-teller rejected by the mainstream as compensation for my lack of genuine education.
Many who embrace libertarianism and other right-wing ideas, it seems to me, never outgrew that adolescent attitude. For lack of opportunity — or simply through rationalized laziness, because our society socializes young men to believe that their genius is more clearly displayed the less work they have to do — they have stayed within the narrow explanatory circle provided by right-wing media and have chosen to interpret its self-enclosure as elitism rather than close-mindedness.
Viewing these people as individuals, we can be tempted to judge them as pathetic or deluded. But when I look at the example of my own father, I prefer to see them as thwarted and even victimized. My dad is a smart guy whose background didn’t give him many opportunities. He took every path available to better himself, but at a certain point he got stuck at an educational dead-end due to family obligations. Still hungry for some intellectual engagement, he turned to fundamentalist Christianity and later to right-wing radio. They gave him a framework for understanding the world, and they both share similar strategies for innoculating their followers against being open to other positions.
What’s so insidious in both cases is the fact that they package elitism for the masses. Ayn Rand is supposedly giving us the esoteric answer to all major problems — in the form of a pulp fiction novel. You get to feel intellectually superior and “in the know” without doing much actual work. The whole system works to convince you that a limited set of tired cliches are not only the answer — but that they’re an answer no one else has heard, hence the need to inject them into every conceivable debate. And when people inevitably reject them? Well, what else do you expect from those misinformed sheep?
The combination of simplicity and false elitism affects every aspect of right-wing intellectual culture. It accounts for the fascination with a cheap “gotcha” — because it is always necessarily the more hidden or little-known statement that reveals the real truth. I experienced this in my recent swirlie in the toilet of right-wing harrassment, as dozens of people asserted that precisely because I had deleted my tweets, they must show what I truly believe. The secret “gotcha” uncovered by the right-wing media but covered up (viz., appropriately ignored) by the mainstream is what really counts, because only people who are “in the know” would know about it.
Beyond its destructive effects on political culture as a whole and even beyond the false ideals it propagates — after all, no political agenda is free of bad effects or convenient falsehoods — what I find most objectionable about the right-wing echo chamber is the way it cuts people off from genuine intellectual engagement. Indeed, it actively preys on people who are most hungry for that engagement, giving them intellectual sawdust and passing it on as food. The fact that so many people embrace the right-wing echo chamber is not, for me, a sign that there are a lot of dumb or naive people, but rather that there is a systemic deprivation of intellectual stimulation in our society.
The rise of the right-wing echo chamber is not simply a sign that our education system has failed — though it is also that — but for those who have ears to hear, it represents people crying out for the real satisfactions of the intellectual life. The fact that they’ve had to make do with a cheap substitute is not an indictment of them personally so much as of the forces that prey on their intellectual curiosity and the society that rendered them so vulnerable to that predation in the first place.