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24 June 2009 8:20 AM

On Discourse: The Bunker Mentality

bunker mentality. noun. An attitude of extreme defensiveness and self-justification based on an often exaggerated sense of being under persistent attack from others.
In previous posts on how we talk to one another about politics, I've used arguments offered by Mark Levin (see this post too), Andy McCarthy and Amanda Marcotte to show why it is unwise to assume ill motives on the part of ideological opponents.

As Rob Holmes put it:

When you make an argument about hidden motivations that (a) lacks external evidence and (b) conveniently coincides with your existing biases, then it is more likely that the argument and your conclusions are attractive to you because they confirm your biases than that the argument is correct. This has less to do with the specifics of the cases quoted and more to do with a general rule about examining one's own motivations.
A related problem, present on both sides of the ideological divide, is prominent spokespeople who cultivate a bunker mentality among their core audience. This is a phenomena I initially observed on the left, when folks like Al Sharpton started using even fabricated instances of racism to advance a narrative of black victimization. There isn't any doubt that some black people are victimized due partly to their race everyday in this country. However, asserting a fabricated instance of racism does real harm.

The point is perhaps best made by thinking about the Duke Lacrosse rape case, wherein a rogue prosecutor ignored exculpatory evidence and charged numerous white players with the rape of a black stripper. The prosecutor obviously victimized the innocent players, as we all know, but less remarked upon is how he victimized other black students on the Duke campus. They walked around for weeks imagining that more privileged white kids were maliciously preying on black women than was in fact the case. The world is a frightening enough place without folks who deceptively propagate false horror stories for their own aggrandizement.

On the right, a less harmful but still troubling form of bunker mentality plays a prominent role on talk radio.

It is useful to stick with Mark Levin for my examples, not only because I've listened to his show for a great many hours lately (you can too here), but because it i the quintessential example of this phenomena on talk radio (Rush Limbaugh's shtick is to exude confidence bordering on arrogance).

On the Mark Levin show, the announcer who opens the program reads from a script that sets the tone. Imagine a melodramatic, booming voice:

Broadcasting from the underground command post deep in the bowls of a hidden bunker somewhere under the brick and steel of a non-descript building, we've once again made contact with our leader, Mark Levin.
This is shtick. Mr. Levin does the show from his basement in a gated golf course community not too far from Washington DC. His dogs walk in and out of the studio sometimes. I don't mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with a silly opening shtick per se. But isn't it interesting that, among all the messages or tones he might convey, bunker mentality is literally the one he chooses?

This often borders on absurdity. On Mr. Levin's show, for example, an advertisement for his New York Times bestselling book Liberty and Tyranny is frequently played. The spot alternates back and forth between a booming announcer voice, and Rush Limbaugh giving a testimonial.

The announcer part is in boldface. Mr. Limbaugh's portion is in italics.

This is the kind of book that's gonna spread like wildfire through the underground. This is the kind of book that people will read in the bathroom with a flashlight on college campi. This is the kind of book that people will send with no return address to their parents, boyfriends, and girlfriends. The people who read it won't admit to having read it. They'll just claim what they've learned from it as their own knowledge. It will be passed around in various places in a plain brown wrapper, with whispers: "Read this. Don't tell anybody where you got it." GET YOUR COPY OF LIBERTY AND TYRANNY WHEREVER IMPORTANT BOOKS ARE SOLD. You need to understand what the left has done, and how far we have come from the principles and concepts of our founding to where we are now. Liberty and Tyranny, from Simon and Schuster.

Mr. Levin: It's a perfect father's day gift, and father's day is only a month a way.Costco's done a great job... Barnes and Nobles, Borders, they all have 'em.
That last comment by Mr. Levin is from the May 18, 2009 show. The ellipses elide other prominent bookstores he mentioned, and the pattern is basically the same every day. You've got the shtick intended to cast the host and his audience as put upon dissidents, unable to get their message out through normal channels, passing around concealed copies like Vaclav Havel and his pals. It's juxtaposed with the reality that the book is easily available in every major chain bookstore in the country and via Internet booksellers -- and that every week America's left-leaning newspaper of record publishes a bestseller list with Liberty and Tyranny at the top. Again, this isn't the most serious matter in the world. I'm sure most listeners don't seriously regard the book as samizdat. But isn't it telling that Mr. Levin or his associates regard bunker fantasies as the most effective shtick for pushing copies?

Exposed to this kind of rhetoric everyday, it's only natural if casual listeners begin to internalize the idea that conservatives are put upon, that they are under constant attack. This paranoia is regularly fed by exaggerated and wholly absurd rhetoric. "What you are living through right now, ladies and gentlemen, is a counterrevolution, a counterrevolution to the American revolution," Mr. Levin noted that same day. "Just follow the bouncing Marxist." Later in the episode: "We are watching the dissolution of American civil society, and it absolutely disgusts me." Soon after, he channels what he regards as the judgment Barack Obama is making of Americans. "If you're not a community organizer, and didn't attend Jeremiah Wright's church, and didn't befriend Bill Ayres, and didn't hang around with a lot of other scum balls, then there's something wrong with you."

We'll consider one last extended monologue from May 28, 2009:

I think this is as close to a dictatorship as we've ever had in this country. I honestly do. Oh, I know all the arguments. Obama was elected, the Democrats were elected. I get all that. But the systemic effort to deny us our liberty, and in essence our franchise, by constitutionalizing their agenda, by institutionalizing their agenda in the bureaucracy, is anti-democratic and anti constitutional as anything I've ever seen or frankly read about in this country.

Much worse than FDR and LBJ. This is the closest thing that I can think of. We have a government that accepts no limitations on its power. And when I say we have a government I mean the people who currently run our government in Washington. They accept no limits on their power. They have no self restraint. They do not accept the limited roll of the central government in our constitutional scheme. This is the closest thing to a dictatorship as we have ever had in this country, I believe. And they're having a grand old time punishing people, hurting people, spreading misery.
Readers familiar with history might recall that George Washington was offered, and refused, a rather kingly role at the head of American government, that the Alien and Sedition acts were signed into law under John Adams, that Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War, that millions of slaves were held in this country until the 1860s, that FDR broke the two term tradition, interned Japanese Americans, attempted to subvert Supreme Court rulings by packing the body with friendly appointees, nationalized industries, drafted an army, and assumed unprecedented powers to act on the Great Depression and Win World War II... but Barack Obama is the closest to a dictatorship that we've ever come -- and this from a man whose value to the conservative movement is supposed to be his astute knowledge of the constitution, the law and American history.

Mr. Levin's accumulated work demonstrates that he possesses the knowledge to avoid absurd statements like the above. Whether his is an error of judgment or intellectual honesty I cannot know, but the effect is to draw his conservative listeners closer to the kind of mindset they'd have if conservative radio hosts had to broadcast from bunkers, right-leaning books had to be passed around in brown paper bags by whispering dissenters, and liberty in America was at its all time lowest ebb.

This isn't reality -- it is a bunker mentality, and its effect is to make those who possess it sound so absurd, outside their ideologically friendly cocoon, that outsiders begin to dismiss even their sound points. There are actual ways that the already marginally guilty Obama Administration and the Congress might further infringe on economic freedom -- policies I regard as well worth fighting. Allies with a bunker mentality are about as helpful in that effort as the 9/11 truthers were in opposing the Iraq War. In that situation, conservatives understood that a political movement is hurt by apocalyptic rhetoric far removed from reality, whether or not its originators try to explain it away as hyperbole or entertainment. It's a lesson too many have now forgotten.

More importantly, every American is done a disservice by a show with a large audience encouraging a bunker mentality among its listeners. What an improved country we'd have if those on the left and the right who engage in this sort of thing would stop making their most loyal audience more pessimistic and put upon than reality justifies.

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Comments (5)

Living in Washington D.C., I don't doubt Mr. Levin *does* feel as though he is besieged. You rightly point out that Limbaugh does not come off as besieged. Quite the opposite. Yet, you don't like that either. Your obsession with Levin (in no way, a top tier talk radio host) is becoming a little disconcerting. The proper idiom escapes me at the moment.

James GW (Replying to: James GW)

It just occurred to me who is the Left's equivalent to Rush Limbaugh whose "shtick is to exude confidence bordering on arrogance":
It's Andrew Sullivan.

His influence on the Left is probably compatible with Limbaugh's. Even President Obama has been found to be a faithful reader.

mickster99 (Replying to: James GW)

Let see: Rush 20 million listeners, his own radio network and 3 hour a day program, keynote speaker at CPAC. Andrew Sullivan self-described conservative. How many hits does his blog get? I am thinking you are grasping for straws here. I think that the bunker mentality is key to being conservative. Rush does have a bunker mentality. At least he plays one on the radio. How else do you explain the dittohead fanatics? Chicken little is a key metaphor to being a conservative.

Geoff in DFW

Hailing from Texas, I can give you thousands of instances of bunker mentality. War must be waged against an indiscernible, Socialist foe that distributes lies via every channel, printed word, website. Every utterance from someone not of the fold is either outright derided, ignored, or picked apart for its inevitable falsities.

Conversely, people who hew to the party line are treated as prophets, and those who stray as traitors to the cause.

I'm not kidding, it is that bad. It is that black and white. This is tinfoil hat territory, and it is very much alive and well thanks to the conservative echochamber that's been developing and aligning since Reagan. I live with people everyday who believe that the Socialist, Marxist menace is upon them. It's funny though, because they don't even know the meaning of those words. Much like they don't know the meaning of tea parties, or going Galt, or fascism.

I used to engage constantly with people like this, try to talk of a middle road, of realism, of pragmatic, mixed policies. I used to argue for the "traitors" to their cause, because I'm one of them. But it is impossible to break through.

Do I believe there is a way to break through? Were Rush or Levin or any of the purveyors of this culture to break rank and suddenly urge moderation--would things change? I'm not sure. I don't know.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure it originated with them. People made them, and continue to make them. It's supply and demand for an angry, displaced, tired people who're not sure what to make of the changing world. It's uncertainty Levin et al help answer with anger. Where is their place in the new order, where does the United States "flyover country" go from here?

Bill Harshaw

You call it "bunker mentality", David Brion Davis called it counter-subversion, (http://www.amazon.com/Fear-Conspiracy-Un-american-Subversion-Revolution/dp/0801491134/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245867274&sr=8-9) the idea that the purity of the American ideal was being subverted by the unseen power of a conspiracy--showed up in the anti-Masonic movement in ante bellum US, also in anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism and nativism generally. Then of course anti-communism in the 40's and 50's. Then Hofstadter wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Life"(http://www.amazon.com/Paranoid-Style-American-Politics-Vintage/dp/0307388441/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245867475&sr=8-5)--focusing mostly on the right but some on the left (i.e., Populism.)

Bottomline, this strain of thought has always been with us, just one strand of the great American sideshow.

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