Tag Archives: ideology

The Religion of Politics

The most significant difference between science and religion is that the former deals with empirical evidence, while the latter requires faith. (You can’t, after all, demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of God in a laboratory experiment.)

Falsification is the heart of scientific inquiry; no matter how fervently a scientist believes in a particular explanation of natural phenomena, if further experimentation disproves it, she alters that conviction. Religious beliefs by their very nature cannot be falsified.

Ideally, policy decisions, like science, are based on evidence; we try a policy approach, and if it doesn’t work, we try something else. The characterization of states as “laboratories of democracy” rests on that premise–states will try different approaches to similar problems, and others will learn from their successes and failures.

When political ideologies become religions, societies suffer. A recent post at Political Animal, made that point:

When Josh Duggar and countless similar self-righteous conservatives are exposed as cheating molesters, it doesn’t cause conservatives to question whether their belief system might be causing those problems. They just double down. When abstinence education causes more teen pregnancy than responsible sex education, conservatives double down on the slut shaming. When tax cuts on the rich and wage cuts to government workers lead to economic recession, Republicans don’t question their core economic beliefs; they just claim they weren’t allowed to go far enough.

In a way, modern conservatives are similar to the Communists of old. No matter how obvious the ideology’s failure, the response is always that the policies were not enacted in a strong and pure enough manner.

That inability to come to grips with failure and adjust course, and that insistence on doubling down in the face of adverse results, is part of why many consider modern conservatism to be an almost cultic movement. Its adherents long since stopped caring about the evidence or empirical results. It’s all about who can prove truest to the faith, and maximally annoy and rebel against the evil liberal heathens. Policies and results are really beside the point.

Yep.

The Need for Certainty–Content Optional

A couple of years ago, I ran into a casual friend I hadn’t seen in many years–since college days, in fact.  Back then, in the early 1960s, he’d been a black sheep in his decidedly apolitical family, joining a young socialist group and participating in various protests. I was taken aback to discover that he has remained equally ideological, but is now somewhere to the Right of the Tea Party. Or Genghis Khan.

This sort of switch from far left to far right and/or vice-versa is actually not all that rare.

Libertarians often point out that the political spectrum should not be conceived as linear, going from left to right, but as a circle: at the top, where the left and right meet, are the authoritarians. (They may have different agendas that they want government to impose on the rest of us, but they’re both in favor of having government make the rest of us behave as they think we should…)

There are, of course, people who are authoritarian because they are passionate about a consistent political agenda, and absolutely convinced that it should be imposed because it represents Truth, Justice and the American Way. But there also are people like this old college friend who rather clearly have a need for bright lines and easy certainties–people who find the ambiguities of modern reality intolerable. Much like religious fundamentalists who switch from the literalism of religion A to that of religion B, they are people for whom having a dogma is ultimately more important than the content of that dogma.

The rest of us are left to muddle through contending prescriptions for what ails our body politic, uncomfortably aware that recognizing “it depends,” “I’m not sure” and “it’s more complicated than it seems” lack the appeal of rousing calls to arms.

As another friend of mine says, True Believers are often warriors, but you will search in vain for the armies of the Marching Moderates.

Actually, that may explain Congress….

Infinitely Depressing, If True

Adam Gopnik recently wrote an essay in the New Yorker that has continued to nag at me–not because he is wrong, but because I’m very much afraid that he’s right.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs:

What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.

The ideology of individual autonomy is, for good or ill, so powerful that it demands cars where trains would save lives, just as it places assault weapons in private hands, despite the toll they take in human lives. Trains have to be resisted, even if it means more pollution and massive inefficiency and falling ever further behind in the amenities of life—what Olmsted called our “commonplace civilization.”

Part of this, of course, is the ancient—and yet, for most Americans, oddly beclouded—reality that the constitutional system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones. The Senate was designed to make this happen, even before we had big cities, and no matter how many people they contain or what efficient engines of prosperity they are. Mass transit goes begging while farm subsidies flourish.

But the bias against the common good goes deeper, into the very cortex of the imagination. This was exemplified by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision, a few short years ago, to cancel the planned train tunnel under the Hudson. No good reason could be found for this—most of the money would have been supplied by the federal government, it was obviously in the long-term interests of the people of New Jersey, and it was exactly the kind of wise thing that, a hundred years ago, allowed the region to blossom. Christie was making what was purely a gesture toward the national Republican Party, in the same spirit as supporting a right-to-life amendment. We won’t build a tunnel for trains we obviously need because, if we did, people would use it and then think better of the people who built it. That is the logic in a nutshell, and logic it seems to be, until you get to its end, when it becomes an absurdity. As Paul Krugman wrote, correctly, about the rail-tunnel follies, “in general, the politicians who make the loudest noise about taking care of future generations, taking the long view, etc., are the ones who are in fact most irresponsible about public investments.”

I remember thinking, when Christie made this decision, that he was simply crazy. In a sane world, refusing to provide demonstrably needed infrastructure–especially when it is virtually cost-free for one’s state to do so and when it will also generate desperately needed jobs–makes no sense at all.

But that assumes that, in a sane world, there is such a thing as the common good.

 

 

 

The Problem with Ideological Purity

A recent post at Political Animal made a point I’ve pondered frequently as I’ve watched the GOP morph from political party to religious cult.

After a brief discussion of the attack on Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, the post considered the implications of the GOP’s refusal to bend even when voters are likely to punish them for that intransigence:

The most striking fact when it comes to women and birth control is this one: 99 percent of sexually active women use it.

Pundits have often pointed out that historically, neither party tends to dominate the political system for very long. The reason for this is that, like how corporations exist to make money, political parties exist to win elections, and if the party keeps taking positions that alienate huge fractions of the electorate, then they’ll change those positions.

But the GOP isn’t doing this. After the 2012 defeat, driven in large part by being absolutely crushed in practically every minority demographic, Republicans halfheartedly tried to choke down an immigration reform bill to at least stop the bleeding. President Obama signaled his support, and the Senate passed a half-decent measure. But now reform looks dead because House Republicans refuse to let the Senate bill come up for a vote. For the GOP, it’s almost the worst of all worlds: a bill supported by all the prominent Democrats goes down due to extremist Republican intransigence. Now Democrats get to blame the GOP for breaking their promise, and quite possibly increase their share of the minority vote. It would have been better to not do anything.

Something similar looks to be happening for women’s issues. Ken Cuccinelli just went down in the Virginia governor’s race largely due to his antediluvian views on women’s rights. The party as a whole would be best served by this debate just going away. But extremists have strongly-held beliefs, and don’t particularly care about clear-eyed electoral cost-benefit calculations.

Here in Indiana, the culture-warrior contingent of the state GOP remains adamant about the need to pass HJR6, despite pretty convincing evidence that their position is costing them support–especially among the younger voters they will increasingly need.

Politics is the art of compromise. Religion, of course, is a matter of faith. To describe today’s Republican party as “Faith Based” is accurate–but it is not a compliment. It’s another way to suggest that the party’s current course is suicidal.

Abandon Hope….

Every time I tell myself that Americans have gone through nutty and mean-spirited periods before, and we’ll come through this one, I encounter something that dashes my all-too-fragile hopes.

This time, it was a link sent by a colleague who is equally depressed at the seeming inability of our lawmakers to respond appropriately to facts and evidence.

According to new research by Yale Law Professor Dan Kanan, we’re pretty much doomed.

Okay, that isn’t really the title of his paper. The title is: “Motivated Numerancy and Enlightened Self-Government,” but it might as well be “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Live Here.” Kahan measured the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly, and he found that partisanship can undermine even the most basic reasoning skills.

Even people who are normally very good at math, for example, can totally “flunk” a problem they would ordinarily be able to solve, because the correct answer would contradict their political beliefs.

This research is further confirmation of work done by another researcher, Brendan Nyhan, who teaches at Dartmouth. He’s the one who reached the conclusion that facts don’t matter to people who are deeply invested in an ideology; when people believe something that isn’t so, giving them facts that correct their error just makes them cling more strongly to their original belief.

Death panels, anyone?

Denial, as my grandfather used to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

It does appear that this unfortunate aspect of the way the human brain works is limited to beliefs in which we are emotionally invested. You think if we put valium in the drinking water, and everybody chilled out a bit, we could improve policymaking?

Just a thought….