The Threat to Liberalism

 Part two in a three part series   Rev. Brian J. Kiely, November 18, 2018


Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

Groupthink requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. The dysfunctional group dynamics of the “ingroup” produces an “illusion of invulnerability” (an inflated certainty that the right decision has been made). Thus the “ingroup” significantly overrates its own abilities in decision-making and significantly underrates the abilities of its opponents (the “outgroup“). Furthermore, groupthink can produce dehumanizing actions against the “outgroup”.

Most of the initial research on groupthink was conducted by Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University.[6] In last Sunday’s sermon I laid out a basic definition of the liberal philosophy and showed how our Unitarian Church has been inextricably linked to that way of thinking since our institutional beginnings a couple of hundred years ago.


Liberalism at its most simplistic, starts with a founding argument: Human beings were all born with the same free will.  And we were also born with the power of reason.  Therefore all people deserve the same rights and freedoms and treatment before the law.  Figuring out how those rights and freedoms should be managed is best done by the use of reasoned debate.  Lay out your facts and ideas. Listen to all responses, pro and con with an open mind.  Debate the merits and then come to a decision.

It sounds perfectly manageable, doesn’t it?  And sometimes that’s how our liberal democracies have worked. Sure, ruling parties often have the power to push things through, but most often somewhat sensible compromises were reached.  

That has been changing as politics in many parts of the world have fallen into patterns of polarization.  Instead of people with contrary policy views working through those differences, we have seen a frightening increase of partisan populism.  The opposition is seen as neither check nor balance, but derided as being wild eyed crazies bent on destroying the country.  Good policy matters far less than winning and holding power.  The ideal of finding the best outcome for the many has given way to the getting the best for the few: the people who will help politicians and parties get reelected. Reasoned debate has all but disappeared.

I don’t need to tell any of you that in the last few decades political campaigns -while seldom ever pristine or genteel- have gotten dirtier and meaner.  And if you are someone who believes in reasoned and rational debate of issues, well between attack ads and social media, you are pretty much out of luck.  These days it’s only headlines and quips that play.  Substance no longer matters in the public forum and it’s pretty damn depressing.  

Ranting like this makes me feel a bit old and curmudgeonly,  something I try to avoid.  I prefer to be open to new ideas and approaches, but what I have been observing fills me with disgust, anger and sometimes despair. 

Here’s an example of the most recent thing ‘getting my goat’ as my Dad used to say.  I am sure you have seen the spate of TV ads and billboards from Shaping Alberta’s Future, a PAC privately funded by wealthy business interests.  But what galls me most are the fake talk radio ads.  Consider this one:

Audio clip: (You can also reach this through the Shaping Alberta’s Future website under radio ads #2)

Now I am not siding with a particular party here. Indeed, all parties are guilty to a degree of hyperbole and taking opposing policies out of context.  What offends me in this egregious example is the complete lack of issue.  This is a sad masquerade- a fake debate.  It is 30 seconds of scripted angry opinions completely unsupported by argument or fact .  It is dog whistle politics.

Sure, some of the statements are true in the strictest sense.  There is a carbon tax, for example.  But it’s use for funding green projects and public transportation is ignored.  Rebates to families are ignored.  Context is ignored.  Can we call it a lie?  Perhaps not, but we can label it deliberately and toxically misleading.

Now that kind of ad is not really new, but the frequency and virulence are unlike anything we have seen before.

What is truly sad about this decay of public debate is the attempted deliberate dumbing down of the electorate.  Parties neither expect nor particularly want you to learn about the issues. I have regretfully given up on a couple of friendships because those former friends are no longer willing to engage in a respectful conversation about public policy.  Whether it’s bike lanes, pipelines (pro or con) or public transit, there are people out there who know what they know and anyone who thinks differently is a jerk.  There is zero interest in hearing the other side.  They have listened for points that support their views and ignore the rest. 

Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias’.  Evidence that supports your belief is given far more creedence than evidence which challenges it. 

In a recent book, The Enigma of Reason, Mercier and Sperber refined the idea to what they call ‘myside bias’. “Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.”

And it’s not just the right wing that does it.  I know I have to work hard to pay attention to the claims of those whose views differ from mine.  But I try.  I lost friendships because the other people wouldn’t meet me do the same and try to hear my points.  There was no ground for conversation, much less compromise.

It’s a natural enough tendency, but if we claim to be people of intelligence, we have to be smart enough to look hard at our own ‘facts’ and not get dropped down the rabbit hole of ‘mysideism’.  Our absolute belief in our rightness has led increasingly to polarization and governments that can’t get much done.

Another curmudgeonly pet peeve these days is the way center and left media are copying the very tactics they decry coming from the right.  Too often I find myself ashamed of the perpetual attack mode of the more liberal cable networks.  On CNN and MSNBC and in the New York Times, there is little chance that Donald Trump could ever get credit for doing something right.  And yes, I will let my bias show in suggesting that there would not be much he has done that might be praiseworthy.  Fox News has reintroduced ‘yellowjacket’ journalism to the western world.  If you think I am wrong about the left using the same tactics, try this quick test:  Go home and look at any moderate or left leaning outlet and see if you can find a picture of the President where he doesn’t look weary, angry or just plain silly.  You will have a hard time.

In this, the outlets share a goal of inspiring their base- a somewhat far cry of the ideal of reporting the news fairly.  And inspire the base they do.  We saw an excellent example this Fall with the Munk Debate in Toronto.  Breitbart founder Steve Bannon was invited to debate David Frum on whether the future belongs to populist politics or to liberal politics.

Now consider, this was a debate…a designed exchange of ideas on opposing viewpoints.  It wasn’t a political rally nor a single speech that would not be fact checked.

Nevertheless, and I find this just as distressing as some of the most absurd tweets of the US President, elements on the left went berserk.  Protesters, even the NDP demanded that Bannon be barred from speaking in Canada.  Protests and pickets were organized outside the venue where at least one police officer was punched in the face. The debate started 45 minutes late because of increased security screening for the audience. 

This is not okay!  One might be able to argue against a speech of hate remarks coming from a single source, but this was a debate…two distinct voices arguing their issues.  Isn’t this the rational basis of society and democracy?

No doubt there was also some objection to Frum as a representative of the ‘liberal side.’ David Frum, though born Canadian, is a former speech writer for George W. Bush. Politically he is unashamedly conservative.

But as the extremely literate Frum noted in The Atlantic magazine, “I’ve spent my life as a conservative, but what I’ve sought to conserve is not the Spanish Inquisition or the powers of kings and barons.  I’ve sought to conserve free societies that began to be built in the 18th century and that have gradually developed and strengthened – with many imperfections and hypocrisies and backsliding – in the 250 years since.”  In other words, Frum embraces the same liberal philosophy I embrace.  He is even more articulate about liberal democracy in the debate.

He clearly stated several reasons for participating in the debate (which he won).  This is one of them:

“I hoped to speak, first, to the small numbers of genuinely undecided, to those who might imagine that populism offers them something.  This is not true.  The new populist politics is a scam and a lie that exploits anger and fear to gain power.  It has no care for the people it supposedly champions and no respect for them.  It will deliver nothing – not only because its leaders are almost invariably crooks (although they are), but because they have no plans and no plans to make plans.”

To me that sounds like a worthy opponent for Mr. Bannon and having watched the video, I can confirm that he was.  I highly recommend it to you.  Just look up Munk Debate and you will find it.

I will return to some of the points of the debate next week as I look for a hopeful conclusion.  But this week is about the threats to liberalism.

The first and greatest is mysideism or what our reading called groupthink.  It is the very opposite of rational discourse.  Now few will debate that the populists are doing the far more effective job of exploiting groupthink. The populists build their strategies intentionally using this concept.  They turn groupthink from a situation into a goal.  To take the easy example of Mr. Trump, absolute loyalty is demanded to his views and leadership and he therefore exists as the poster boy for the “illusion of invulnerability” discussed as a prerequisite for groupthink. It is an irrational way of making decisions and it’s terribly dangerous. 

Sadly it has crept across the border most notably in the political strategies of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney.  I’m not discussing their policies, but their strategies: forced loyalty, the demeaning opposing voices and forcing division in to ingroup and outgroup.  Oh and a rather cavalier approach to actual facts.

Once you establish that kind of culture, it’s easy to follow the example of Nazi Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

“Use its powers to repress dissent”  God knows Trump has tried that starting with dismissing anything that does not fit his agenda as ‘Fake news’ and any investigation of him or his allies as a ‘witch hunt’.  He has unsuccessfully, for now, banned a reporter he doesn’t like and has mused about other imitations on media.

Mr. Trump and those like him, declaims, he does not debate.  And if you disagree, he derides and bullies.  He used much of the last year touring the country speaking at rallies of adoring crowds.  There is no possibility for debate there because he is the only one speaking.  There are only his often absurd statements, his inaccurate if not completely false claims of accomplishment.  There are his bullying attacks on those who will not bow before him and his pandering to his crowd.  Nothing he says gets challenged.  The more absurd and outrageous the lie or the attack the louder the cheers.  It is groupthink at its worst and it has worked.

No reasonable person thought he could get the Republican nomination.  No sane person thought he had a chance at winning the election.  No somewhat frightened person thought he would get two years in without being impeached.

And now he has launched his 2020 re-election campaign.

The rise of Trump has been the most deeply distressing blow to liberalism since the rise of Hitler.

But there are signs of hope, and that will be the final sermon in this series next week.