In a recent column in The Washington Post, George Will made the following extraordinary, if unwitting, statement about potential GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney: “Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from ‘data’ … Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?”
As I have argued before, this contempt for fact and reason is reflective of a deep personality divide that now dominates America’s political system. Specifically, the Republican Party base has come to be dominated by an authoritarian core whose worldview is deeply informed by emotional antipathy both to out-groups and, perhaps more fundamentally, to uncertainty and complexity. It’s not new that Republican candidates would play on those antipathies to attract votes or that such influences would affect lawmaking itself. But perhaps more than ever before, Republican policy proposals are now almost entirely reducible to these same interconnected animosities.
Whereas electoral politics always involve some emotional appeals designed around us-vs.-them frames, and political slogans always, and necessarily, simplify reality, policy debates and lawmaking notionally rely to some degree on facts, interests and trade-offs, requiring something other than gut-level expulsions. But such considerations are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the GOP, which is ever more hostile to data and facts that might upset its preferred view of reality.
Earlier this year, critics jumped on Sen. Jon Kyl when he falsely asserted that more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services related to “terminating pregnancies.” The actual figure is far lower, but as is typical of Republican elites these days, Kyl, an Arizona Republican, certainly wasn’t going to admit that he made a mistake. Doing so has itself become anathema to the modern right. Instead, Kyl’s office clarified that the senator’s remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.”
“Not intended to be a factual statement” drew howls of derision and became an instant classic as a pop cultural punch line. But for a worldview premised so deeply on emotion rather than reason, it ultimately did not matter whether Planned Parenthood spent 90 percent of its resources on abortion, or 3 percent. Planned Parenthood is detestable, and all right-thinking people understand this. Therefore, Kyl ought to be able to heap scorn on what it does, unconstrained by such nuisances as whether he actually characterizes the organization’s activities accurately.
Will was able to put the word “data” in scare quotes for precisely this reason: that it really doesn’t matter what’s true in the mundane world of numbers or factual information. Instead, what matters most is whether we are able to express clearly and unabashedly our deepest resentments.
Twenty years ago, conservatives launched a full-throated attack on “political correctness” and “relativism” because of their frustration with an academic climate that challenged their ability to offer judgments unfettered by cultural sensitivities about an increasingly diverse and complex world. Such sensitivities blunted conservatives’ ability to make clear, categorical moral statements about right and wrong, leading to “the death of outrage,” as former secretary of education and conservative pundit William Bennett put it. What’s bracing to see in 2011 is that facts themselves represent the same impediment for conservatives that political correctness did two decades ago: an intolerable constraint on the right’s God-given right to unabashed condemnation.
I think it’s fair to say that most people, at one time or another, feel that kind of anger in their gut and a consequent urge to heap invective on the objects of their rage without having to worry over whether they’ve considered all sides of a situation beforehand. What’s remarkable about the contemporary right, however, is the extent to which this urge is now predominant and has been raised, in many ways, to its supreme value.
This is consistent with what we know about the clear tendencies of more authoritarian-minded individuals: a hatred of ambiguity, a discomfort with difference, a greater tendency to seek out information sources that confirm their biases and a distaste for thinking about complexity. In place of such potential sources of tempering of initial reactions, the modern right has embraced factual relativism in service of this deeper set of impulses.
Even the presumably more considered, policy-oriented party leaders, like Paul Ryan, are only really using policy proposals to express contempt for the realities of a world not easily reducible to simple-minded solutions for challenging problems. Ryan’s budget proposals have been repeatedly exposed as fraudulent, as have his desperate defenders’ resort to bogus data. But the underlying truth of Ryan’s budgets is that if we cut taxes on the well-off and stop coddling everyone else, the world will be a better place. Having to prove that this is true, by means of a detailed analysis of a complex reality is, in the end, just a hassle. But more than that, it’s an infuriating imposition.
One might object that folks on the left also proffer simple-minded solutions to complex problems. Yes, of course that’s true. And to one degree or another, most of us have some tendency to seek out information that confirms our biases. That’s human. But one would be hard-pressed to find open contempt for data, in general, in debates within liberal policy circles.
Whether we’re talking about reducing or eliminating taxes, climate change, evolution, what Planned Parenthood does or doesn’t do, the president’s birth certificate, the role that the Community Reinvestment Act did or did not play in the financial crisis, the nature and extent of inequality or the serially preposterous statements of the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, for the contemporary right facts are increasingly little more than an encumbrance. And attempts to paint equivalencies between left and right on this score simply don’t hold water.
Resorting to facts does still serve a purpose in helping conservatives to simulate reasoned discussion over policy, and Republicans’ pseudo-factual policy positions do serve to keep mainstream media occupied with reporting ridiculous claims as if they are credible. But beyond that, facts are an aggravation, operating as they do to prevent right-minded people from expressing unalloyed animus.
There has been much talk in recent years of a Republican war on science. But that’s really just a subset of a larger waron facts themselves. A Bush administration official is said to have once mocked liberals in the “reality-based community.” When George Will, about as wonky and self-serious a commentator as the right has, reveals such contempt for “data,” it’s a clear sign that hostility to reality is now a central fact of the modern right.