Folks are talking about a short piece in the New Yorker by George Packer, plus a brief comment by Andy Sullivan. This is what Ben Smith said at The Politico (“Liberal despair: Age of irrationality“):
A couple of influential writers broadly in sympathy with Obama today float the same notion: That we’re living in a fundamentally unreasonable age, that voters basically can’t be trusted, and that democracy is just barely muddling through.
Anyone who spends much time covering American politics feels this sometimes. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to think this when your side is losing politically.
First, let me say that neither Packer nor Sullivan come out and say that the people can’t be trusted, and I don’t think they meant to imply that the people can’t be trusted, although I can see how one might read them that way. However, if it’s true (as polls suggest) that voters are about to hand the House and maybe the Senate back to the Republicans because they are angry with Democrats for failing to fix the mess the Republicans made, then yeah, the democracy thing doesn’t seem to be working any more.
Here is a bit of what Packer said:
Nine years later, the main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind donâ€™t stand a chance these days against the actual image of a mob burning an effigy, or the imagined image of a man burning a mound of books. Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up…. unreason, cheered on by cable news, has won the day. We have undeniably gone sour on interfaith tolerance. We have turned inward in sullen exhaustion.
It is as if America is intent on destroying itself, its civil society, its fiscal future, and its next generation in an endless fit of mutual recrimination, neurotic nationalism, and religious division.
Yes, but this has been true for some time, and as I recall Andy was doing his bit to help it along not that long ago.
The fact that the VORI* and all of his worshipers among the intellectual elite fail to acknowledge (or even notice) the radicalism of his opponents is just as much of a problem as the radicalism itself. They have enabled it all along the way. In fact, I would have to say that it’s also a form of “epistemic closure” at this point. Anyone who is writing about the unreasoned radicalism of the right wing as if it just manifested itself out of nowhere has at least been in denial for well over a decade and a half.
[*VORI = Voice of Reason Incarnate, a sarcastic reference to President Obama]
The term “epistemic closure” apparently has been kicked around in certain conservative circles of late as a shorthand for ideological intolerance and misinformation. For the record, some conservatives have come out against these things.
Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bushâ€™s administrations, wrote that in the last few years, â€œepistemic closureâ€ had become much worse among â€œthe intelligentsia of the conservative movement.â€ He later added that the cream of the conservative research institutes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, had gone from presenting informed policy analyses to pumping out propaganda.
It’s as if Barlett and others are waking up from a dream and haven’t acclimated to reality yet. The AEI and Heritage have always existed to pump out propaganda. They’ve been doing it from the beginning. The propaganda didn’t become propaganda in the minds of Bartlett et al. until, for some reason, they began to lag behind in the Right’s lemming dash to the cliffs. They’ve dropped out of the stampede to watch the other lemmings dashing by, so to speak, and now they see that the lemmings are irrational. What they haven’t yet admitted to is that the lemmings always were irrational, and that they also are lemmings.
Put another way, the American Right (which is not necessarily the same thing as American political conservatism) has been motivated by greed, bigotry, paranoia and ignorance all along. But awhile back some highly educated righties came along and slapped a veneer of intellectualism, or at least a whiff of eastern Ivy League-ism and big words (like “epistemic”), on top of the mess, to make it socially presentable. William F. Buckley is coming to mind here, although there were others.
But Buckley is gone, in more ways than one. “Movement conservatism” has broken completely with any pretense of rationality and reverted to its anti-intellectual roots. In doing so, it is leaving behind those conservatives who were trying to stay in the Buckley mold and pretend (especially to themselves) there was a rational foundation to their greed, bigotry, paranoia and ignorance.
Meanwhile, all these years, the rest of the nation’s media and political elite have been stuck in polite denial that the Republican Party was being taken over by barking mad whackjobs. It’s like a family in denial about Uncle Frank’s pedophilia or Aunt Ruthie’s alcoholism. It was right in front of them, but they wouldn’t see it. Some, like Ben Smith, still refuse to see it (“At the same time, it’s a lot easier to think this when your side is losing politically.” — it’s just politics as usual, see).
But I’ve wandered off a bit from the stated topic, which is can the people be trusted? The problem is not the people. The people, I think, are capable of making reasonable and rational decisions when they understand an issue. But to understand an issue, you have to have knowledge of an issue. Knowledge, as in actual facts.
And that’s the rub, because the American people are not getting clear, factual explanations of anything. Whether the issue is global warming, health care reform, extending the Bush tax cuts, or an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, the American people are forming opinions based on lies and propaganda, because that’s all they’ve got to go on. They are confused and exasperated, and understandably so. “Sullen exhaustion” indeed.
It all comes back to whether news media are able, and willing, to stop being the submissive conduits of misinformation and resume the job of informing and educating rather than entertaining. And it also depends on a lot of people in politics and media waking up from the polite denial and facing reality. I’m not holding my breath.