I strongly believe in the usefulness of the social sciences, especially in studies that use comparisons between fields and between different time periods to shed light on our current situation. So when political scientist Henry Farrell suggested that I study the field literature that exists on personality cults, I followed his lead.
He recommended one study in particular the work of New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez, which in my opinion is a revealing study. “The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites from 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 immense differences in culture and material circumstances, the elite of all these regimes behave more or less evenly, especially in what the study calls “signal of loyalty” and “flattering inflation”.
Signage is a concept originally developed in economics; it indicates that people sometimes engage in costly and seemingly unnecessary behaviors to prove they have attributes that others value.
For example, new hires in investment banks may work incredibly long hours not because the overtime is truly productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to keeping the slot machine going.
In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd statements on behalf of the leader and his agenda, which often include “nauseating displays of loyalty.”
If statements are clearly absurd and destructive in effect, if making those statements humiliates the person making them, these are characteristic signaling traits, not accidents, how can the leader know that a subordinate is truly loyal, not if he’s willing to demonstrate that loyalty by harming not only others but his own reputation?
And once this form of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty must go further and further to differentiate themselves from the herd.
Hence “flattering inflation”. The leader is not only brave and wise, he is also a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel Prize-winning economic analyst, and more. The fact that he is obviously neither only increases the effectiveness of flattery as a pledge 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, and I am one of them, have been saying for years that the Republican Party is no longer a normal political party.
He does not, for example, resemble the Republican Party of the Dwight Eisenhower era or the Christian Democrats of Germany. But it increasingly resembles the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.
The only thing unusual about the widespread adoption of the leader principle by Republicans 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 worst, they lose internal party positions and possibly future primaries. But the timidity of Republican politicians is such that these light threats are apparently enough to make many of them behave like the courtiers of Caligula.
Unfortunately, all this loyalty signal puts the whole country in danger. In fact, it will certainly cause the deaths of a large number of Americans in the coming months.
The stopping of the initially successful US vaccination campaign was not entirely caused by partisanship – some people, especially members of minorities, choose not to be vaccinated for reasons that have little to do with it. to do with current politics.
But politics clearly remains a key factor: Republican politicians and Republican-leaning influencers have fueled much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases practicing what can be defined as overt sabotage.
And there is an astonishing negative correlation between the proportion of votes for Trump in each county in the 2020 election and the proportion of people vaccinated in those counties today.
How have life-saving vaccines been politicized? Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein points out that Republicans today are always looking for ways to prove their commitment to the cause is greater than that of their peers – and given how far the party has come, that’s the only way to do it. madness and nihilism ”, and the defense of mad and destructive policies such as opposition to vaccines.
That is, hostility to vaccines becomes 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 lures of the well-rewarded transition between the public and private sectors. But the Republican Party has become something different and, as far as I know, unprecedented in American history, but with many precedents overseas.
Republicans have created a political realm in which costly displays of loyalty transcend considerations of good politics or even the most primitive logic. And we may all have to pay the price.
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