Festering Right. Lucky Us.
from Peter Radford
We must confront what appears to be a considerable block to our recovery: the blind faith of many on the right. This topic has become celebrated in the days since Obama’s resounding win with more than a few pundits wondering out aloud quite how right wingers could elude themselves so completely over what was about to happen. I waded into this debate myself on Friday. Frank Rich at New York Magazine has a very good summation of the phenomenon.
The problem has deep roots.
As America slowly changed in the fundamental demographic ways that have now bobbed to the surface, and as the progress of modernity burrowed more deeply into the fabric of social thought, those predisposed to opposition to the associated consequences were forced to react. At first that reaction led to triumph. I believe the first manifestation of the rending in the fabric was Reagan’s election as president. His sugary simple message and his bellicose foreign policy rallied a voter population facing, for the first time, the possibility of a diminution in America’s status. Rather than deal with the issues leading to the potential of diminution voters retreated into the citadel of self-delusion.
This retreat came at the same time business was becoming populated with a rising tide of amoral, supposedly objective, analytically adept managers. These technocratic bureaucrats ran business without regard for social impact or even old fashioned paternalistic intent, and instead hung their hat of the pursuit of shareholder value above all else. They thus severed the links with workers and communities and wandered off into a separate world. One where the rules and the facts differed from those outside their bureaucratic towers.
So both part of our political elite and all of our business elite began to live a parallel life – one where the issues of day to day life were either trivial of were only partially perceived.
Four solid decades of this, encouraged by its early political success and the consequent co-option of large parts of the political left, has led us to today.
It became, during this period, commonplace for the media to call America a naturally ‘center-right’ nation. This overlooked the popularity of enormous left of center social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The stark fact of their popularity ought to have called into question the nature of the so-called natural right-leaning tendencies of the electorate. Viscerally, of course, everyone knew about this paradox. Right wing true believers fretted over their inability to rid the nation of those programs precisely because of that popularity and the undertone of its left-leaning implication. There was a profound dissonance between what the elite understood and what the electorate wanted.
This dissonance was never an issue as long as the economy grew and average voters could be persuaded that exceptions were few. Thus welfare could be ‘reformed’ to squash the poor who benefitted because they were inconsequential to any political calculations, and those who were on the fringes of poverty could be rallied into believing the poor were somehow different from them and were thus a burden to be shed.
The problem of reality avoidance, which was the political order of the day throughout the decades before the recent crisis, was that the issues bringing about America’s relative decay were left unaddressed. And the longer they were left out of the political mainstream the easier it became to convince a section of voters that they didn’t exist at all.
So a whole industry arose around the precepts essential to maintaining the illusion. Corporate jargon became ever more evasive and sanitized of the anti-social consequences of shareholder value; politicians avoided the consequences of the ever increasing impact of inequality, environmental damage, social change, and the stagnation of wages; and zealots imposed deregulation on the economy and hid from its natural results. In short policy became less related to the issues of the electorate and more focused on the issues of a few.
All this has been well discussed. The gradual separation of America’s elite from the nation as a whole was a first sign of decline.
But the problems persisted and gradually grew.
Regular people confronted the results of decaying infrastructure, poor schools, defunded education, declining standards, globalization, stagnant wages, dumbing down of jobs, and the entire panoply of changes hidden from the gaze of the elite. They also saw first hand the demographic changes going on. They road the bus or the train with an ever changing social group. Their children attended schools ever more diverse. They read and heard advertisements in different languages. They knew about all the social upheaval that characterizes modern America. Yet they perceived little reaction up above. While the mass festered, perhaps disgruntled, perhaps confused, and always without leadership, the elite prospered.
Two worlds opened up.
To which we can add a third.
The inability of the zealots to undo the social programs they reviled so much led them to rally support. In order to do this they needed to demonize the changes going on and thus create a division in the electorate they could exploit. It is the manifestation of this effort at division we are now seeing exposed so much. The zealots found seams in the electorate they could take advantage of, but only if voters could be persuaded to ally themselves to the zealot’s cause. One of those seams was the discomfort felt by some about the rise of minorities and women to a more equal status. Another was the apparent attack on religious faith by the steady advance of modernization. And a third was the fear of outside influence on America which played into a deep nativist feeling exacerbated by America’s intense militarization and quasi-imperial foreign entanglements.
This was a toxic brew in need of constant attention. And eventually it needed a supply of its own facts to keep it coherent.
Within the citadels of the modern right, in its think tanks, its media outlets, and eventually inside its academic bases of sympathy, conversation that was inconvenient ceased. Dialog with the real world ended. And extreme effort was expended to develop ideas and thus policies, not to solve problems, but in defiance of problems. Indeed it became essential within those places to deny that some problems existed at all. Because to acknowledge them would require engagement. And a prelude to successful engagement is always a settlement on the facts of relevance to a problem. But if those facts have been denied for decades, if they represent a challenge to the dynamic necessary to enlist the support of voters, and if they contradict dogma, they will be ignored. They have to be ignored.
Eventually contradictions arise. Thus modern conservatism has emerged as riven through with such contradictions. The libertarian wing wants to limit government, whilst the socially active wing wants to mobilize government against abortion, gay marriage and other of its targets. The corporate wing wants to encourage immigration – on a limited basis – whilst the nativist wing wants to ban it all together. The raucous nature of these internal divisions allowed those inside the right wing bubble to believe they were engaged in a conversation relevant to the real world. The truth was the only relevance it had to other insiders. As the right became more intent on sorting out the issues important in its own conversation, it became less able to converse with anyone else.
One aspect of this intense introspection is close to home for me: economics became swept up in it.
The impact of the right’s separation from reality affected economics in two ways.
First it led to the politicization of policy recommendation. This has, of course, always been a characteristic of economics. Indeed the gap between economics and politics has always been vague and so easily traversed that I cannot see it at all. But in recent years the invasion of politics has been ever more pernicious. It has led to the wholesale denial of common ground for theoretical conversation. And it has led to a breakdown in progress. The discipline is entrenched in camps that are determined not to compromise. A battle rages that has little social value and prevents the modernization of core economic ideas.
The second impact runs deeper. It is the wanton selection of facts to aid theory making. Or, rather, in the absence of supportive facts, the resort to faith. And by faith I am referring not to the kind of imaginative jumps that are necessary to support future enquiry, but to the kind of imaginative jumps designed to prevent such future enquiry. These latter kind of leaps of faith truncate learning by cutting off a line of thought or by eliminating a potential problem a priori. The absurd axioms of modern economic orthodoxy are a prime example of such blind faith. And the defense of them has become a cottage industry in recent years as orthodoxy’s evident failure has been exposed both by events and by more rigorous debates outside the establishment.
So modern conservatism and modern economics share a common disease: by being so intent on denying problems they began to rot from within. As each challenge from outside was rebuffed, those inside became more cut off from criticism and hence reality. This set in motion a self-righteous cycle that was bound to end with collapse, decay, and a plunge into irrelevancy.
A reliance on faith is not a solid platform for progress. Indeed, it seems from recent events, an assured path to decline. Blind faith has betrayed a large part of America, and until that part is back in touch with fact, that betrayal infects us all.
We are all, for better or for worse, engaged in the cleaning up of the festering rot on the right.