There is a general recognition that major problems and issues of our world — including understanding them and their causes and proposing remedies and coping strategies — are rarely simple in nature. Complexity theory and the long history of systems science, as exemplified by the work of such authorities as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Talcott Parsons, Russ Ackoff, Peter Checkland and others, have demonstrated this truism conclusively.
Nevertheless, systems science has always recognized that reductionism also has an important role in conceptualization, theory development, methodology, analysis, problem elicitation and design of practical interventions. However, that role is meant to be a controlled and targeted one, to be used judiciously only when appropriate to a particular topic or juncture within a larger and more holistic strategy, and not to be used as the exclusive quick-fix approach to all problem-solving.
When Emotion Trumps Dispassionate Politics
Regrettably, there is abundant evidence that radical-right leaders, ideologues, politicians, administrations, opinion-formers and others have an overwhelming tendency to promulgate, often dogmatically and even ruthlessly, simple analyses and solutions to complex real-world issues. Unsurprisingly, these rarely work and often make things far worse.
The radical right exhibits reductionist thinking and narratives in two main ways. First, it trivializes or minimizes the nature and impact of particular risks — and sometimes maximizing them — contrary to known science or factual evidence. Second, it over-simplifies specific problems or issues, or invents false and unscientific cause-effect explanations for them. The apparent motives for why the radical right engages in such egregious manipulation and fakery center on four processes, which it believes will bring its cause political and populist benefits.
The radical right indulges in the erasure from its narrative of inconvenient or unwelcome facts from the accepted knowledge base of history and science. For example, protagonists pretend that the vast body of knowledge on the complexity of problems and issues —relating to society, science, economics, health, social reforms, human rights, foreign relations and governance in general, as developed over the past half-century — is either irrelevant, is fake science or never even existed. The radical-right policies, narratives and actions of the Trump administration provide stark in extremis examples of such revisionism on many fronts and in various forms.
The radical right seeks to regress to the simple truths and values of an imaginary past world of the 1960s and earlier, when relatively simple mechanistic, biological or economic “explanations” provided a comforting illusion of order, certainty, neatly-stacked problems and solutions, and simplistic salvation models and “programs” for correcting deviations from the dogma and assertions of what constitutes the correct normative order. Henry Mintzberg’s critique of the fallacy of predetermination and other reductionist fallacies, along with Michael Beer, Russell Eisenstat and Bert Spector’s critique of the poor predictability of non-holistic programmatic change, have no currency in the radical-right world since these expose its inherent flaws.
Examples of radical-right salvation cure-alls range from Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall and Viktor Orban’s anti-Muslim border controls, to the palingenetic ultranationalist ethno-religious and political cleansing demanded by the extreme right, to the radical-right advocacy of, or sympathy with, discredited eugenics theories of inferiority of certain races. As allegedly inferior races will be an unacceptable drain on society and the economy, eugenics advocates argue that they should be “dealt with,” echoing the Nazi racial purity laws and Eugen Fischer’s infamous Aktion T4 extermination program in Hitler’s Germany.
For example, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to apologize for or dismiss a policy adviser who suggested publicly that discriminatory policies based on eugenics were warranted.
Complexity theory regards real-world problems and issues as “messes”— systems of problems that defy resolution simply by picking off component problems one by one or even in groups, because in doing so, the “mess” simply adapts itself and survives in a modified and unresolved form. Messes require the systemic whole to be tackled — holistically. Despite the overwhelming trend over the past 45 years among governments, policy research groups and the academia toward adopting holistic approaches, the radical right has persisted with its reductionist and revisionist world view. For example, some of the radical right seriously argues for the reintroduction of minimalist social, employment and environmental policies similar to those of the Victorian times, as well as the wholesale removal of protective legislation for workers.
Nevertheless, because radical-right propaganda overall offers a seductive salvation model, as the 21st century has progressed, radical-right salvation ideas have gained widespread populist support among weary and fearful societies demanding “solutions.” Moreover, there has also been a resurgence of reductionist theories and arguments in some areas of academia, such as recent scientific papers that airbrush out the body of knowledge on complexity and advocate rehashed reductionist theories on scientific management and salvationist programmatic change models from the 1960s.
Manipulation of Risk Perceptions
US President Donald Trump’s persistent official policy is to deny that climate change exists or, if it does, then it is neither caused by human activity nor a major threat to the world. That policy implies a belief that there is no systemic cause and effect relationship between human activity, global warming and climate change, and extreme weather events. Therefore, no special preventative measures or contingency planning are required, and the existing emergency response provisions are adequate since extreme weather events will remain rare, unpredictable and non-catastrophic. In radical-right terms, the “problem” and its risks are thereby reduced to zero, as they do not exist.
As another example, in radical-right terms, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) are reduced to a set of allegedly relatively minor health threats whereas (quoting discredited quack science from a struck-off physician) MMR vaccine is falsely cited as a major cause of autism in children. The underlying justification appears to emanate from the radical right’s fear of removal of the freedom of parental choice coupled with a belief that scientists who support vaccination — the vast majority, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), etc. — are part of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine conservative governance and the economy.
Radical-right supporters are heavily represented in the anti-vax movement, which includes Trump. In February 2020, he contradicted the CDC and the WHO on the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, dismissing the scale of the threat as a “hoax” and claiming that his media enemies were using false coronavirus stories as a weapon to undermine him politically. Subsequently, Trump has persistently sought to talk down the COVID-19 threat to public health and has strongly advocated the removal of lockdown restrictions before it is safe to do so — apparently on economic grounds, a belief that health experts were exaggerating the risks and to avoid damage to his reelection chances.
At the same time, while the radical right artificially deflates some risks, it inflates others. For example, Trump has persistently inflated the incidence and risk of violent criminality among immigrants (whether legal or illegal) from Mexico, contrary to the known facts. He has also similarly falsely inflated the risk of terrorism from Muslim immigrants and visitors to the US.
Confirmation Bias in Propaganda
The radical right exhibits a strong preference for any evidence, opinion or assertion which it believes strengthens its case. While not unique in seeking to present its best case, the radical right stands out in the relentless and aggressive way it disseminates its propaganda via all media formats, but especially online and social media. Radical-right leaders, politicians, ideologues, opinion formers, commentators and sympathetic journalists selectively include in their narratives only those items and assertions that tend to confirm and support radical-right objectives and, conversely, exclude any material that contradicts or challenges radical-right ideology or that casts the radical right in a poor light.
Thus, for example, the recent sudden increases in MMR cases (including deaths) officially attributed to anti-vax campaigns supported by the radical right will be ignored, while stories of populist support for the anti-vax position will receive favorable publicity. Stories of the heroism of firefighters and emergency workers in the conflagrations in California and Australia will dominate the narratives of radical-right administrations and their supporters, while climate change (if mentioned at all) will be vehemently denied as a primary causal factor in the fires.
Viktor Orban will boast of a huge success in his Hungary-for-Hungarians-only policy in the way his massive border fencing and strict controls have stopped the alleged Muslim takeover of the country while ignoring the fact that historically, Hungary has only ever had a minuscule Muslim population — a classic false proposition to evoke fear in the native population followed by their relief when the (non-existent) threat is neutralized. If the non-existent Muslim hordes have not entered the country, then populists believe that Orban’s policy was clearly correct and effective.
Mendacity and Amoral Calculation
Radical-right leaders and supporters persistently lie in order to advance their political ideology, persuade the public of their righteousness and to cover up their own bad conduct. For example, according to The Washington Post, as of October 14, 2019, President Trump had made 13,435 false or misleading statements since taking office. By December 10, 2019, that number had risen to 15,413, according to The Washington Monthly.
While it may be anticipated that all politicians stretch the truth to their advantage, and some brazenly lie from time to time, the scale of Trump’s mendacity is exceptional and unprecedented. Trump, his administration and the radical-right establishment have turned amoral calculation, lying and dissemination of false facts and fake news into a central plank of official policy rather than using it as an ad hoc convenience.
Radical-right reductionism has played well to a populist audience looking for some kind of salvation from perceived problems and threats. The radical right has been skillful in weaving into its narrative artful rhetoric and imagery concerning problems and threats that are in some cases real but mixed up with far more that are exaggerated or invented.
Playing on populist fears, the radical right then proposes itself and its policies as the only salvation. This populist support, based on psychological dependence, may work for a time if the promise of salvation seems plausible and realistic. However, ultimately, support is likely to wane as enacted radical-right policies fail in the face of real-world complexity.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.