Reason and the Mind of Michele Bachmann

By The Intersection | August 10, 2011 11:01 am

By Jon Winsor

A couple weeks ago, when Chris described the Tea Party as authoritarian, I had to stop and think–how could that be? The Tea Party bills itself as libertarian. How could it be simultaneously authoritarian? How would that work?

Ryan Lizza’s great profile of Michele Bachmann in The New Yorker shows us. I’d encourage people to read the whole thing, but a couple key paragraphs jumped out at me. The first is Lizza’s description of Bachmann’s religious influences: theologian Francis Schaeffer (a very important theologian for modern evangelical activism), and a leading proponent of Schaffer’s, Nancy Pearcey:

[Pearcey taught] readers how to implement Schaeffer’s idea that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one’s life. She tells her readers to be extremely cautious with ideas from non-Christians. There may “be occasions when Christians are mistaken on some point while nonbelievers get it right,” she writes in “Total Truth.” “Nevertheless, the overall systems of thought constructed by nonbelievers will be false—for if the system is not built on Biblical truth, then it will be built on some other ultimate principle. Even individual truths will be seen through the distorting lens of a false world view.

Is the Bible a clearly discernible “system” that competes with all other systems? There are many ways to interpret the Bible, so who gets to say when the Bible and a “system” conflicts? The implication is that some people are continually right in some sense, and others are continually wrong, regardless of the demonstrable cases where the “right” people might be in error.

A second paragraph that jumped out at me has to do with the beginning of Bachmann’s political career:

Bachmann was getting interested in politics just as her party was getting interested in people like her. In the late nineteen-nineties, she began travelling throughout Minnesota, delivering lectures in churches, and writing pamphlets, on the perils of a federal education law known as School to Work, which supported vocational training, and a Minnesota education law known as Profile of Learning, which set state education standards. In one pamphlet, she wrote that federal education law “embraces a socialist, globalist worldview; loyalty to all government and not America.” In another, she warned of a “new restructuring of American society,” beginning with “workforce boards” that would tell every student the specific career options he or she could pursue, turning children into “human resources for a centrally planned economy.”

David Frum comments on this phase of Bachmann’s development:

This kind of talk would sound paranoid to most of us. It emerges from a religious philosophy that rejects the federal government as an alien instrument of destruction, ripping apart a Christian society. Bachmann’s religiously grounded rejection of the American state finds a hearing with many more conventional conservatives radicalized by today’s hard economic times.

When Bachmann is asked what principle motivates her, her answer is  “liberty”. But Lizza notes dryly,  “It is a peculiarity of the current political moment that a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious beliefs in government has become a hero to a libertarian movement.”

Thinking over the above, it’s helpful to distinguish two strands of American libertarianism. The first is the kind we think of with Ron Paul or Reason magazine. This view believes in the power of a free individual’s reason to improve life, and it is plausibly anti-authoritarian (although arguably, it has its own authorities and ways of being absolute). The second libertarianism has to do with freedom from the federal government. This is not necessarily because you dislike authority. You might just view the federal government as a rival authority to the authority you want. With this second kind of libertarianism, “states rights” comes to mind, and also the religious homeschool movement.

Michele Bachmann has this second view in spades. Not only is she a staunch disciple of Schaeffer and Pearcey, but also John Eidsmoe (who told an interviewer “it was the state [of Alabama’s] ‘constitutional right to secede,’ and that ‘Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun understood the Constitution better than did Abraham Lincoln…’”), and also J. Steven Wilkins (“the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North”), and David A. Noebel (a homeschooling activist and “longtime John Birch society member whose pamphlets include… ‘Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles.'”)

So while the first type of libertarianism at least has a classical liberal’s respect for reason and shared facts, Bachmann’s style of libertarianism seems much more Manichean, and paradoxically authoritarian (where a particular “moral” authority is very strong. Maybe calling it libertarianism is a stretch). If we’re going to talk to a Michele Bachmann about just about any national policy, particularly science-related policy, right out of the gate reason and shared facts are going to have a hard time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (16)

  1. Chris Mooney

    You are broaching the very deep question of why the two parts of the right–moral, and economic–so often travel together, when they do not appear to be very well united at the level of ideas.

    Well, perhaps they are united at the level of psychology instead. That’s what you’re getting at, I think. Start here:

  2. Incredulous

    “The Tea Party bills itself as libertarian. How could it be simultaneously authoritarian? How would that work?”

    It doesn’t. Basically, they are not telling the truth to claim that they are Libertarian. While the Tea Party may have started out as body with a Libertarian message, they have been co-opted by the ultra conservative defectors from the Republican party who have not been able to achieve their goals because the Republican party wasn’t far enough right for them.

  3. It can't happen here!

    I think the simple fact is that libertarian policies will always lead to authoritarian government. Even though that isn’t the intent, it’s the way it works given that libertarian policies necessaarily aggregate power and wealth into the hands of the few. So it’s actually in an authoritarian’s interest to promote libertarian policies; which is what you see with the Republican party in general and the Tea pArtiers in particular.

  4. oldtaku

    A useful question to ask here is ‘How do they feel about liberty for other people?’ Almost everyone is ‘libertarian’ when it comes to themselves. It’s allowing other people freedom that’s hard, and won’t get you very far politically, so the anti-authoritarians are very rare.

  5. ╦heBigo╦

    If Bachmann is a libertarian of any sort, I would like her to advocate for a gold standard, abolishing the federal reserve and advocate for the Austrian school of economics. A.E is the dominate economic philosophy amongst libertarians. Sure, there was an article somewhere about how she read Ludwig Mises or I think Rothbard on the beach, but that is not good enough. There is o concrete evidence that she is a supporter of A.E so as far as i am concerned she is another center right republican. One has to understand that Ron Paul birthed the TEA party ad the standard of what a real TEA party candidate is. Him and his son Rand Paul are the only true T.P politicians i can think of.

  6. Chris Mooney

    I’m not sure everyone knows what an authoritarian is.

    See here:

    One key difference between libertarians a la Reason magazine and authoritarians is the role of religion–the latter are very religious, fundamentalist. These are not Ayn Rand people.

    Here is Altemeyer on authoritarian *followers*; leaders are a different matter:

    “Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
    1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
    2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
    3) a high level of conventionalism.
    Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing authoritarians.”

  7. Chris Mooney

    #4–more specifically, how do they feel about liberty for people who have very different views than they do. true libertarians should support such liberty no matter what, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody.

  8. Nullius in Verba

    What does the phrase “freedom of religion” mean to you, in this context? (Genuine question.) Should politicians have freedom of religion?

    You mentioned that she had a history “pushing” sectarian religious beliefs, but you didn’t say in what way or give any examples. By “pushing”, do you mean to argue for or persuade towards a particular belief, or to actually enforce such beliefs or practices based on them on people? Such as?

    Authoritarianism is not the same thing as using argument from authority.

    Voluntary (and informed) submission to an authority is compatible with individual liberty.

    Nor does libertarianism conflict with moral absolutism – libertarians hold moral principles such as the harm principle as absolute.

  9. The Intersection

    @3 I think the simple fact is that libertarian policies will always lead to authoritarian government.

    “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows…”

    That’s the traditional argument against pure libertarianism, and you get the sense that libertarians actually *want* to have that argument (I’m talking the Ron Paul people). But you get the sense from Lizza’s article that Bachmann’s beliefs aren’t up for discussion…

    –Jon Winsor

  10. vel

    The Tea Party may call itself libertarian but that makes as much truth as me calling myself a platypus. They are authoritarians through and through. They want a theocracy (based on whatever religion that they’ve created for themselves by cherrypicking and self projection) that lets them alone and punishes anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are like three year olds, wanting everything that supports civilization but they dont’ want to pay for it.

  11. Nullius in Verba

    My word! The Tea Party do seem to have got people rattled, if they’re going to these lengths to put people off listening to them!

    Freedom is slavery.

  12. Incredulous

    #12 Nullius in Verba

    “Freedom is slavery.

    Ignorance is strength!

  13. Erik Jay

    Can you define everyone in the Democratic Party, or any movement within it, with one term? Jeez, lighten up. Bachmann is no libertarian, not as far as any libertarian person or media I know. Gary Johnson, Ron Paul — those are libertarians. REASON mag, that is libertarian. You think Bachmann is popular in those pages? Get real! Some TP folks I know are libertarian, others are movement conservatives, a small number are funda-mental-cases, most are … complicated. But it is a simple thing to show that Bachmann is NOT a libertarian. Enough with the sweeping generalizations, eh?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar