I strongly believe in the usefulness of the social sciences, especially studies that use comparisons over time and space to shed light on where we are today. So when the political scientist Henri farrell suggested that I look at literature in his field on personality cults, I took his advice. He recommended one article in particular, by New Zealand researcher Xavier Marquez; I found it revealing.
“The Production Mechanisms of Sects” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from the Rome of Caligula to the North Korea of the Kim family, and finds some striking similarities. Despite great differences in culture and material circumstances, the elites in all of these regimes behave in much the same way, especially what the newspaper calls “loyalty reporting” and “flattering inflation”.
Signage is a concept originally derived from the economy; he says people sometimes engage in costly and seemingly unnecessary behaviors to prove they have attributes that others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work incredibly long hours, not because the overtime is actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to fueling the money machine.
In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling usually involves making absurd statements on behalf of the leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty”. If statements are blatantly absurd and destructive in effect, if those statements humiliate the person making them, they are characteristics, not bugs. I mean, how does the leader know if you’re really loyal unless you want to demonstrate your loyalty by hurting both others and your own reputation?
And once this type of signage becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty need to go even further to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence the “flattering inflation”: the leader is not only courageous and wise, he is a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously not one of those things only improves the effectiveness of flattery as a display of loyalty.
Does all of this sound familiar to you? Of course it does, at least for anyone who has followed Fox News or the statements of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.
Many people, myself included, have said for years that the GOP is no longer a normal political party. It is nothing like, say, the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower or the German Christian Democrats. But it increasingly resembles the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.
The only thing unusual about the GOP’s massive adoption of the leader principle is that the party does not have a monopoly on power; in fact, he does not control Congress or the White House. Politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump and Trumpism in general are not sent to the gulag. At the most, they risk losing intraparty offices and possibly future primaries. Yet the timidity of Republican politicians is such that these mild threats are apparently enough to make many of them behave like the courtiers of Caligula.
Unfortunately, all of these signals of loyalty put the whole nation in danger. In fact, it will almost surely kill a large number of Americans in the coming months.
The blocking of America’s initially successful vaccination campaign is not entirely driven by partisanship – some people, especially members of minority groups, do not get vaccinated for reasons that don’t matter much. to do with current politics.
But politics is clearly a key factor nonetheless: Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have led much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there’s an amazing negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and his current vaccination rate.
How did life-saving vaccines become politicized? As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests, Republicans today are always looking for ways to show they’re more committed to the cause than their colleagues – and given how far the party has gone in the past. rabbit hole, the only way “absurdity and nihilism”, advocating crazy and destructive policies, such as opposing vaccines.
That is, hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signal.
None of this should be taken to imply that Republicans are the root of all evil or that their opponents are saints; Democrats are by no means immune from the power of vested interests or the lure of revolving doors.
But the GOP has become something different, with, as far as I know, no precedent in American history albeit with many overseas precedents. Republicans have created a political realm in which costly displays of loyalty transcend considerations of good politics or even basic logic. And we can all pay the price.