As I seek to put some distance—both physically and in the amount of time I spend wondering how many times must Americans repeat mistakes and continue to expand the divides between the haves and the have-nots—between myself and the U.S., I have to learn to simply stare in amazement at the strident denial of evidence from such a large swath of otherwise intelligent Americans.
As I’ve said many times, opinions have now taken the place of facts, not only in the dark conspiracy-riddled minds of a.m. radio hosts, but in the new infotainment industry that used to be the respected and objective Fourth Estate (see the affable Brian Williams as the latest example); not to mention the day-to-day lexicon of the average owner of a “google-machine”.
Evidence just doesn’t register for the “debate” over climate policy, because, given the obvious insignificance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any ordinary sense. And this situation is by no means exclusive. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.
As a reminder here are some examples of other “news” that won’t matter.
First, consider the disastrous Kansas experiment. In 2012 Sam Brownback, the state’s right-wing governor, went all in on the unicorn of macroeconomics….supply-side economics: He drastically cut taxes, assuring everyone that the resulting boom would make up for the initial loss in revenues. Unfortunately for his constituents, his experiment has been a resounding failure and yet, despite an outcry from even hardened state Republicans, Brownback eeked out a win to be re-elected…deniers strike again as they seek to deny certain swaths of the American landscape basic human rights. The economy of Kansas has not only lagged the economies of neighboring states, and Kansas is now in fiscal crisis.
Now it appears that Louisiana State University will have to make drastic cutbacks because aspiring presidential candidate Bobby Jindal has decimated Louisiana’s coffers by cutting taxes to such an insane degree that a respected state-supported university system has been tasked with bearing one fourth of the 1.6 billion dollar budget shortfall created by more GOP voodoo economics left over from the Reagan era.
So will we see conservatives scaling back their claims about the magical efficacy of tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus? Of course not. If evidence mattered, supply-side economics would have faded into obscurity decades ago (I sometimes think that Governor Brownback of Kansas and his supply-side ilk, in earlier years, thought that Gilligan’s Island was the first reality show on television) . Instead, it has only strengthened its grip on the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, the news on health reform keeps coming in, and it keeps being more favorable than even the supporters expected. We already knew that the number of Americans without insurance is dropping quickly and steadily, even as the skyrocketing rate of inflation in health care costs has levelled off. Now we have numerical evidence that the number of Americans experiencing financial distress due to medical expenses is also dropping fast.
All this is completely at odds with dire predictions that reform would lead to declining coverage and soaring costs. So will we see any of the people claiming that Obamacare is doomed to utter failure revising their position? You know the answer. To the contrary, the same lies are constantly being propagated by the GOP that the ACA is failing and costing people their jobs despite all evidence showing the opposite is true.
And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; as typical deniers go, they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who disdainfully point out that the facts don’t support their position.
The question, as I asked earlier, is why. Why the belligerent dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together, with the same set of people insisting that climate change is a hoax as the set of people insisting that any attempt at providing universal health insurance must lead to disaster and tyranny?
Well, it seems to me that the immovable position in each of these cases is tied to rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest. If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you have to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions. If you don’t want the combination of regulation, mandates and subsidies that is needed to extend coverage to the uninsured, you have to deny that expanding coverage is even possible. And claims about the magical powers of tax cuts are often little more than a mask for the real agenda of crippling government by starving it of revenue.
And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, I contend that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure.
It dates back to the very founding of this country and the initial draft of the Articles of Confederation, that none other than George Washington himself learned to hate and eventually replace with the Constitution. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why the deniers-the same swath of government-haters in which climate science and health economics inspire so much rage–seek to deny fellow Americans of equal rights under the law.
Whether this is the right explanation or not, the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about evidence should stop seeking it out. But we should be realistic in our expectations, and not expect even the most decisive evidence to make much difference.
Harvey A. Gold