Magical thinking has always run deep in America, but in the last 30 years things have begun to escalate. "Nutty fringe ideas" are making their way into the mainstream.
In the last 30 years religion has radicalized American politics and seriously harmed the perception of science, says journalist and author Kurt Andersen. This can be directly tied to the rise of the Christian Right in the 20th century. To see this, you only have to look at the response to the same question posed to Republican presidential candidates over three election cycles, from 2008 to 2016: "Do you believe in Darwinian biological evolution?" In 2008, the majority answered yes. In 2012, there were notably less. In 2016? There was only one of 17 candidates who said he did—Jeb Bush, and even he began to backpedal as he answered. "I don’t believe all those people believed what they said," says Andersen, "I don’t think all of them disbelieve in evolution, just some of them—but they were all obliged to say 'yes' to falsehood and magical thinking of this religious kind, and that’s where it becomes problematic." From climate change to Creationism and outright conspiracy theories, Andersen points to how the Republican party has come to increasingly incorporate fantasy and wishful untruths into its approach to social, economic, and foreign policy—and it's turning America into an anti-science spectacle. Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
Why does America confuse fantasy for reality, in pop culture and in politics? Kurt Andersen can pinpoint the moment it happened.
The start of the 20th century was the birth of a strange new reality in the United States. The advent of the moving image, of Hollywood and sudden celebrity, caused a quantum shift in how Americans thought about the experience of life. Actors were elevated to the status of superheroes and demigods, and those left in the obscurity of the masses began to desire that elusive privilege: fame. But where America really went haywire, author Kurt Andersen explains, is when the cult of celebrity and the cult of capitalism merged: it was the opening of Disneyland in 1955. A bizarre reality where advertising met animation. You could buy real wares, from fake characters, in real stores, with make-believe themes. "What happened in Disneyland... did not stay there," says Andersen. From Mickey Mouse all the way to the White House, Anderson doesn't find it at all surprising that Americans might have a hard time telling what's true from what's false. He calls it the fantasy-industrial complex, and it might just be America's beautifully branded nightmare. Kurt Andersen's new book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.