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Disbelief as Belief

from Peter Radford

Are we at a point of true reflection on the right in politics?

Here in the US we have the extraordinary spectacle of a bevy of outsiders of various political stripes leading in the polls not long before the election process gets into its more concrete moments. Decisions are looming very closely.

A few months back we were all amused at the sight of people like Donald Trump and Ben Carson ahead of the ‘establishment’ candidates. We all reassured each other that the closer we approached decision time the more likely its was that these oddballs would fall away and leave the field to the ‘sensible’ candidates – those with experience  or gravitas in the political arena.

But that isn’t happening.

Not even after four televised debates. And those debates were very well watched. We cannot argue no one knows what’s going on any more – the viewership figures belie that idea. People know very well what’s going on.

And here we are. Trump and Carson vying for top dog.

Carson thinks the pyramids were grain storage silos, and that evolution is a lie. Trump wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico and deport about eight million people forcibly.

These people are not serious. They are awful representatives of the Republican party as it once was, but maybe they are perfect representatives of what the Republican party has become.

We have to confront this possibility.

Perhaps the average Republican voter really does believe that building a wall along the Mexican border is a practical policy. Or that forcibly deporting millions of people is a practical objective. After all no one in the Republican hierarchy stepped up and argued for a more considered immigration policy until it was too late. They have all sought to garner strength by pandering to the far right voters who might easily think in such drastic terms.

Here’s a quote from an article in FiveThirtyEight.com, the article was about the apparent disconnect between economic reality and what voters perceive as reality:

The Federal Reserve is devaluing the dollar, Diercks said. Too many Americans are on food stamps or other benefits. Government regulation is stifling small businesses (she bore particular animus toward the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal workplace safety regulator). Inflation is too high. Taxes are too high. Government spending is too high. Statistics showing improvement in the economy are misleading if not outright lies.

“We don’t know where they’re coming out with those numbers,” Diercks said. “The unemployment rate isn’t down. No one wants to talk about the truth, and I hate it.”

This is a mish-mash of typical right wing opinion and flat out disbelief in fact. It ends with a shocking expression of distrust: “The unemployment rate isn’t down. No one wants to talk about the truth, and I hate it.”

But, yes, the unemployment rate is down. Well down. So who is it that is missing reality?

I cannot criticism the interviewee, the mass misinformation in our public discussion is at an extraordinary high. This is partly – possibly mainly – due to the excessive partisan nature of our media. We see and hear daily that the current administration is manipulating the numbers to hide the ‘reality’ of its failure.

This misinformation is necessary because the facts contradict the ideological message so important to many voters. If Obamacare, for instance, is actually working – which it palpably is – then how come we are so violently opposed to it? Ought we not accept it and move on? Or improve it? It becomes irrational to oppose something that is succeeding, especially if there is no coherent alternative being proposed.

I think the malaise felt on the right is built on two planks:

One is the huge frustration of right wing voters who think they have won a number of elections – at the state level and in the mid term votes – and have seen no major result. This frustration leads them into a cynicism and a desire for radical action outside of the establishment party.

The second, and which contributes to the first, is the excessive promises made by Republican politicians. The entire premiss of recent Republican policy has been to oppose. It has not been to promote alternatives. It has been to tap into, and also foster, anger at the rate of change in American society. It has been to delve into the darker corners of the American soul and stir up racial sentiment. It has been, in particular, to set up a straw man figure of ‘the other’ as a source of all that ails the nation. It must be, they have argued, someone’s fault that America is in decline and that the middle class is festering. How convenient was it that Obama is clearly an ‘other’?

It is an undeniable fact that middle America is in crisis. Inequality rages. Incomes stagnate. Costs of key services rise faster than general prices. American power abroad is challenged. Education seems to be in decay. Health care is either expensive of inaccessible. Our roads and bridges need repair. Many public survives are practically defunct. We are poorly served and overcharged by our biggest businesses. Work is unrewarding and vulnerable to layoff. We fear we cannot afford retirement. And no matter how hard most people work they cannot get ahead. Perhaps most spectacularly: the American white population is facing a mortality crisis. The American Dream is, in short, broken.

We can argue at other times whether that dream was a reality, the key is that most Americans wanted it to be real. And now it isn’t.

So who is to blame?

The Republicans have pursued an elitist economic and social policy for four decades. It has been relentlessly pro-business and pro-wealthy throughout that time. Its popular appeal depended on a mix of hyper-nationalism and the illusion that lower taxes would feed through to higher investment and thus economic activity. Republican economics has ben a dismal failure for the average American since 1980.

Rather than modify and develop new conservative policies it sticks with the older failed ones. This is because its paymasters are amongst the few who have benefited from this policies. It cannot change, it is locked in. So to win elections it resorts to alternative action: it stirs up social arguments to resist that perceived change. Hence the curious defense of Christmas from the imaginary ‘War on Christmas’. This despite we are barraged with Christmas for two months of the year.

Then, when the facts won’t cooperate with its worldview, it has to create alternative facts. It sells an alternative reality. It steeps its supporters with misinformation. It stokes cynicism. It lives apart from anything that might contradict its core beliefs.

So disbelief becomes belief.

Great conservative politicians of the past – throughout the world – have avoided this trap. They have succeeded in selling conservative ideas without at the same time denigrating the truth. They have built visions of society that appeal across the entire spectrum of voters. They have not sought to divide society, but to unite it behind their ideals.

The tide, of course, since Industrialization, has been progressive. So conservatism is more an effort to slow change rather than to deny it. Democracy is the progressive extension of citizenship and inclusion to all. Conservatives have resisted this tide at their peril. Their greatest leaders have sought instead to channel it and to adopt the progressive tide to support some traditions as well.

The current Republicans have abandoned that strategy. They have attempted to roll back democracy and to undo some its great achievements. They have allowed themselves to become radical rather than conservative.

And radicalization produces leaders like Trump or Carson. Populists rather than conservatives. That scares true conservatives, but their voices are drowned by the shrill horde they themselves unleashed. So they need to haul their party back to reality.

Are we at a point of true reflection on the right in politics?

I don’t think so. There needs to be an election humiliation sufficient to cause that reflection. And we haven’t experienced that yet.

So I expect this show to go on. It will produce an extraordinary year. Let’s hope it ends well.

  1. November 18, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Looking into the US from the outside, we are moderately amused by the Greatest Circus on Earth : )
    Meanwhile, the real power brokers do exactly as they please, outside the realm of public scrutiny. Like implementing the Trans Pacific Partnership, turning nations into servants of large corporations.

  2. November 19, 2015 at 10:45 am

    The utter senselessness of political economics
    Comment on ‘Disbelief as Belief’

    Keynes famously thought that ‘if economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.’

    Keynes, as we know, did not follow his own advice but became a better known member of the species of political economists, that is, a busy agenda pusher but incompetent scientist.

    Economists are natural born schizophrenics. They cannot make up their mind whether their proper subject matter is society or the economy or something in between. J. S. Mill positioned economics as follows: “The science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth, in so far as those phenomena are not modified by the pursuit of any other object.” (Mill, 1874, V.39)

    This is a rather coarse delineation and as a consequence economists did not hesitate to dabble in psychology, sociology, political sciences, history, anthropology, law, ethics, philosophy, pedagocis, etcetera. What got entirely lost was that the focus of economics should be on the economy.

    The present state of economics is that neither Orthodoxy nor Heterodoxy has an idea how the economy we happen to live in works. J. S. Mill defined economics as science and what we actually have — a hodgepodge of incoherent modls and verbiage — does not satisfy the scientific criteria of material and formal consistency.

    It is of utmost importance to distinguish between political and theoretical economics. The main differences are (i) The goal of political economics is to push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes, in theoretical economics scientific standards are observed.

    The fact of the matter is that theoretical economics has been hijacked by the agenda pushers of political economics. Smith and Ricardo defined themselves as political economists, Marx and Keynes were agenda pushers, so were Hayek and Friedman, and so are Krugman and Varoufakis.

    Political economists speak in the name of economics as a science but derive their arguments, advice and policy guidance from theories that are provably false. What the public has not yet realized is that economics is a failed science.

    “In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum, 1991, p. 30)

    Economists have no true theory, only opinions. This is bad enough. Things, however, become abysmal when economics degenerates to pure politics. Frankly, the last thing an economist qua scientist is interested in is a sitcom about funny presidential candidates that compete for the privilege to execute the volonté générale of a borderline society.

    This brings us back to the ideal of economists as competent people, on a level with dentists, or as J. S. Mill had it: “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued, and if so, in what cases and to how great a length, it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.” (Mill, 2006, p. 950)

    This presupposes that economists in fact know how the economy works — which is not the case. Could it be that economists have been too much occupied with agenda pushing in the last 200 years?

    It is high time for economists to get out of politics and to do their scientific homework.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    Mill, J. S. (1874). Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper To It. Library of Economics and Liberty. URL
    Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
    Stigum, B. P. (1991). Toward a Formal Science of Economics: The Axiomatic Method in Economics and Econometrics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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