Arnold Kling  

Politics and Cults

Truck and Barter or Bandits?... Twilight of My Liberal Idol...

I started to write this as a blog post this morning, but I turned it into an essay, and TCS quickly ran it.

So, I still have not defined "cult." For now, let's say that you are in a cult if you have a set of beliefs where your emotional defense mechanisms have shut down any receptivity to what others would consider reasonable doubt.

Again, I am not sure that this is a rigorous definition. If your doubts about the theory of evolution seem reasonable to you but not to me, does that mean that from your perspective I belong to the "cult" of evolution?

...I do not know Ron Paul. He may be wise. He may be decent. But to dismiss all doubts about his judgment and his character would be to succumb to a cult.

Let me hasten to add that I do not think of the Paul cult as unique. I am equally loathe to join the Clinton cult, the Obama cult, the Guiliani name it.

For me, democratic politics is a "lesser of evils" game, and I'm never sure how best to play it. But I have to say that when I read that this year's New Hampshire primary had a record turnout, it made my heart sink rather than warm. Not that I'm against voting, but I hate to think of people as buying into anyone's political campaign.

Read the whole thing, and let me know what you think.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
8 writes:

Some people are just cultish and any movement will have its cultlike followers. Look at Apple, Starbucks and Oprah.

I don't think the issue can be fully covered without delving into a little theology though.

Sometimes I think bloggers just post Ron Paul stuff to drum up page views. Its routinely the most commented on material at various academic blogs and so it seems an easy way to keep the advertisers happy and goose the standings.

scott clark writes:

As for Ron Paul, you don't have to dismiss any doubts about his character or his judgement to still come away thinking he is the best available option in the political game. THere are certainly plenty of cases in modern politics where politicians got into plenty of hot water because of things that the people around them were responsible for. The responsible parties get fired quietly or hung out to dry publicly, the politician tries to clean up the mess or sweep it under the rug. This one is Ron Paul's.

I agree with you on the fact that the future rests in the hands of alternative, voluntary institutions, I think they will thrive, innovate and grow as the government stagnates. At that point the government will have less de facto power, even if nothing has changed de jure.

But if an opportunity comes up to make some de jure changes in the right direction, it makes sense to me to try to make the most of it.

I should add that I do not presume that the purpose of this particular post was drumming up page views.

This column seems pretty good, mainly for reasons of confirmation bias. Last night the television showed footage of the various candidates post election parties and all the speechifying volunteers and staffers. I told my wife that I was embarrased for those people because, as you say, they bought into someone's political campaign.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Arnold, I think you've defined cultism down. If you think that the Ron Paul crowd is cultish, then you've harmed your presentation by lumping in all the other campaigns as equivalently cultish. If you don't think they're cultish or not potentially dangerously cultish, well, I guess you made your point.

With regards to the campaigns, I definitely see Ron Paul's as borderline cultish, much like Perot's 1992 campaign. Both have gotten people involved who you would never think would be involved with political campaigns. That provides some light moments (the Ron Paul blimp) and some truly scary situations, like 20-something year old computer geeks getting in your face about monetary policy. I want to tell them that if fiat money were so damned bad, how have we had almost three decades of unprecedented growth and innovation starting ten years after formally scrapping the gold standard? But fiat money aside... I've given (fiat) money to the Giuliani campaign because I'm comfortable enough with the idea of him as President. Does that make me part of the cult? I get near daily emails from enthusiastic Giuliani volunteers and paid staffers asking me to man phone banks, give more money, walk precincts. Does that make them part of a cult? What I haven't received is gobbledygook about meet-ups, teach ins, joining a web community, etc. Nor have I received talking points about Rudy's liaisons with Judith Nathan prior to his divorce and before their marriage. The campaign seems to know what is acceptable bounds of a campaign and what would be seen as freaky, and they leave the freaky for Ron Paul and Howard Dean.

Arnold Kling writes:

I go back and forth about who frightens me more--fringe candidates or mainstream candidates. When I see fringe candidates, I think "Hugo Chavez." When I see mainstream candidates, I think "Liberal Fascism." (I haven't gotten very far in the book yet, so maybe I should not use that term until I finish it.)

Garrett Schmitt writes:

It's a nice essay, and after a careful reading I believe I found and agreed with the main thrust of your argument, that individuals should maintain healthy skepticism in the face of vigorous movements in ideas they follow. What would most improve the essay would be a greater focus on this point with further elaboration of the process of immunizing oneself against cultish thinking.

As it is, you spend perhaps too much time going through examples of cults, presenting their motivations, and then presenting situation-specific evidence which renders these cults undesirable to reasonable people. This potentially leads the reader to think cults can be recognized and avoided based on the content of their ideas rather than the ways in which these ideas are propagated and justified. As I say, a more careful reading avoids such mistaken conclusions, but where we spill our ink often signals where our emphasis lies.

Ethan writes:

I fail to see the benefit of using the term cult. Step one, fight with logic, step two, label them a cult? How does this help anyone? The passions presumably blinding his followers are driven by a suspicion of MSM bias, fear of an ever expanding govt., the war, and a revulsion of the alternative candidates. Not trivial in comparison to the cults of socialism, Oprah, "Change" and "Islamo Fascist" fearmongers.

Chris Rasch writes:

For now, let's say that you are in a cult if you have a set of beliefs where your emotional defense mechanisms have shut down any receptivity to what others would consider reasonable doubt.

Which others? What determines what's a "reasonable doubt"?

In my experience, the cult label is used to dismiss beliefs and/or people the person doing the labeling doesn't like, without actually doing the work of engaging the ideas of the so-called "cult" member.

You, for example, have previously insinuated that a large percentage of Ron Paul supporters are racists and fascists. For example:

"My guess is that a militant fascist could pick up a lot of the same voters [as Ron Paul has]." -- Arnold Kling, Ron Paul: My Two Cents

"...the incident illustrates the sort of people [racists] who rally to his banner." -- Arnold Kling, Ron Paul's Baggage

Now you're trying to paint Paul supporters as cult members, who have "...shut down any receptivity to what others would consider reasonable doubt..." [To be fair, you claim that all political mass movements are cults, but you single out Ron Paul.]

You write "...But to dismiss all doubts about his judgment and his character would be to succumb to a cult."

Are some Ron Paul supporters are unreasonably obstinate? Sure. But a majority? No.

Would it also be cult-like to dismiss a group as fascist, racist, cult members without any survey data to support such a belief?

"Not that I'm against voting, but I hate to think of people as buying into anyone's political campaign."

This makes no sense. If you're going to vote, you have to pick someone. What are you supposed to use as the basis for such a decision, if not their campaign platform?

"But I do not recommend joining mass political movements. Instead, treat them as cults."

You don't win elections unless you have at least a plurality of the voters on your side. So, any successful political campaign must, by definition, be a mass political movement.

Also, isn't the content of the campaign's platform important?

For example, you write:

"I'm not saying that I like our current tax system. I would prefer a consumption tax. However, I think that in order to get rid of the income tax, we need to reduce government spending."

How exactly do you expect to get the government you want, unless politicians who support a consumption tax and lower spending get elected?

Ron Paul backers support him because they like most of his platform: eliminate the IRS, end the War in Iraq, drastically cut government spending, stop illegal immigration, and end fiat currency.

The planks of Paul's platform may or may not be good ideas, but Paul supporters believe them to be supported by logic, morality, and the evidence.

So rather than attacks on the character of Ron Paul and his supporters, how about some articles attacking his ideas?

Mike writes:


When I see mainstream candidates, I think "Liberal Fascism." (I haven't gotten very far in the book yet, so maybe I should not use that term until I finish it.)

As a loyal fan of your musings I believe a lot of people would be interested in what you are considering including in your book. Perhaps you could solicit input about things to include you might not have thought about including.

Arnold Kling writes:

"Liberal Fascism" is a new book by Jonah Goldberg. I've just started reading it, not writing it.

Brad Hutchings writes:


Ron Paul backers support him because they like most of his platform: eliminate the IRS, end the War in Iraq, drastically cut government spending, stop illegal immigration, and end fiat currency.

All of which are radical ideas that will never get passed regardless of who gets elected and what Congress they have to work with! Forget whether the ideas are good or bad. Ron Paul is asking his supporters to support ideas which are totally unworkable. I would offer that as definition of "cultish". If the Clintons couldn't get a health care overhaul done between 1992 and 1994, nobody is going to make anywhere near as ambitious a "change" in anything without a serious and real emergency. I'd even question what kind of health reform the Dems could pass if they win or whether the Republicans could actually build the wall on the border they want. There is not enough consensus for either action. Forget pulling out of Iraq ahead of time or reestablishing the gold standard. Not happening.

John V writes:


as per your last post. I don't think supporting all those measures or responding positively to those measures makes one cult-like. It simply means that they like his message and support the general movement toward a more libertarian society. That's the only general movement I support and I admit.

I think Arnold is right in saying that all vehement supporters, even Paul's, are a little cult-like. Hey, when mainstream candidates get a rousing applause for rambling off empty platitudes like "It's time for hope and change", I think that's a little cult-like. Paul's avid supporters simply cheer at specific policies.

Ironically, I think Paul would garner more support if used more libertarian platitudes, spoke more generally to libertarian emotions and toned down the pie-in-the-sky specifics a bit. But that's just my opinion.

I think Caplan hit the nail on the head with his realistic look at what a Paul Presidency would like. scroll down for link if you haven't read it.

He said that for all intents and purposes, spending would drop to veto-proof levels and empower fiscal conservatives to push the envelope a bit. Paul would reverse some bad executive orders and weaken executive power, perhaps appoint a strict constitutionalist to the SCOTUS if given the chance and then drastically reduce our military presence overseas and hence military spending.

All that WOULD HAPPEN. Because there are few to no obstacles in front of him on these matters.

What might happen?

He may be successful at eliminating or merging departments and bureaucracies.

After freezing or reducing some spending, he may take a stab at tax cuts or reform in light of savings and he may take another stab at SS reform...again in light of savings so he can justify transition expenses.

Lastly, he may succeed at some Medicare or general health care reforms to lower costs.

Those are big "ifs"...but not impossible. He needs congressional cooperation on these.

Like Caplan said, it takes a strong push to net some moderate progress.

That's all I would expect. I'm not a cultist. I too roll my eyes at those giddy disciples who cheer at every prompt at the rallies.

Ethan writes:


When your done with Jonah's book please pick up Mr. Veith's. Warning, Mr. Veith among other things is associated with a cultish school with abnormally well connected interns who secretly control most of congress ( (well that is what NPR tells me anyway). Speaking of, the presidential prospects are so lame I would vote for Ron even if all he could do was abolish NPR. He could accomplish that Brad!

Chris Rasch writes:


I agree that Paul is unlikely to get much of his platform passed -- this election cycle. But I don't evaluate candidates solely on their accomplishments during their own political tenure, but also their effects on all elections to come. The better Paul does, the more likely that other politicians will adopt his platform planks, and the more likely that pro-liberty candidates will enter politics. So even if Paul doesn't achieve much himself, he will make it more likely that I will have better choices in the future.

Nationwords writes:

maximising freedom of thought...

Tayeb writes:

Dear Sir
I would like to know what will happen for the Future of Zimbabwe, whether President Mugabe is going to step down or leave his Country , with a peaceful Transition, because the Zimbabwe citizen are suffering over there as evry problem must have a solution.
Your kind advise will be highly appreciated.

I Look forward to hear from you soon

NH writes:

When are people going to understand it's not a cult, but it's finally that there is a man who we believe is honest, not bought, and whose positions we like very much.

This is rare thing. So it's no wonder people go nuts.
For once we are not voting for the lesser of two evils.

What do you think we ought to do to stop the war and spending? A violent revolution? Your type usually does.

Dan Weber writes:

You can google up some good signs of a cult; the two that stick out most in my head from years past are "charistmatic leader" and "outside enemy."

Those clearly apply to the Ron Paul campaign. However, they also clearly apply to any successful political campaign. (Remember the "virtues and villains" posts here?) I can't name offhand what group Obama has labeled as "the enemy" but I can easily do it for every other major candidate. has some good lists.

Clarke Ries writes:

I think the original definition of cult is accurate. For one, it does not imply that enthusiasm for a cause is an indicator of cultish behaviour.

Notice also that one can have reasonable doubt about a cause, think it through, and dismiss the doubt, where others may find that doubt convincing; the definition does not require unanimity of thought, especially regarding politics where the truth of the matter may be much more difficult to determine. Not so evolution, where science has delivered as strong a case as is inductively possible.

I think some of the preceding objections have focused too much on the 'reasonable doubt' aspect and not enough on the 'emotional defence mechanism.' aspect. The real shift into cultism happens when someone is unwilling to engage with rational critique or objections due to emotional attachment to a particular idea or person.

Floccina writes:

According to Murray Rothbard many of the old libertarians were Christian pacifists (various Ana Baptists, Tolstoyists Quakers etc.) I think that Ron Paul was more one of these than anything else.

Mr. Kling, I think the most important paragraph of your essay is the last:

For libertarians, I recommend focusing on institutions that compete with government: families, private schools, charities, and religious organizations (short of becoming cult-like in your devotion). I recommend developing your logical reasoning skills and applying those skills to questioning what politicians say. But I do not recommend joining mass political movements. Instead, treat them as cults.

The key here is to strengthen civil society. The libertarian demand for "Freedom Now!" is a-historical and a-cultural. The foundation for a free politics is a free society, and such a society is made up of companies, schools, churches, families, non-profit organizations, clubs, and other voluntary associations. So focusing on such associations seems more productive than immediate political action (which has not been successful anyway).

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