Mitt Romney noted in the first Presidential debate that “you’re  not entitled… to your own facts”. While he is right on that point, his comment raises a very important hidden issue. As noted in my previous Daily Kos blog, the current Republican campaign, and Mr. Romney’s own website, are both replete with attempts to create their own facts.
This is evidence of a dangerous trend among “conservatives”: a pattern of accusing the opposition of doing exactly what they themselves are doing. This trend is so strong that you can almost predict what they are up to by looking at what they accuse progressives of doing.
Perhaps by calling them on this trick we can encourage all sides to be more straightforward and honest about discussing differences in judgment.
My great grandfather used to have an insightful expression. “You can always spot a dishonest man,” he said; “he is the one who distrusts everyone else.” The deep insight is that most people expect the rest of the world to be just like them. This dishonest man knows he is dishonest and thinks everyone else is, too.
Or else, the dishonest man is worried that he might sound defensive if accused of dishonesty, and cynically tries to deflect the criticism by accusing his opponents of it.
This applies to the political debates of today, as well. When the self-declared conservatives accuse a progressive or even a moderate of something, it means they are doing it themselves.
What do they say we are?
On climate, they say of environmentalists that preventing climate change is not really much of a priority to us, either—that it is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing trick to support our real goal of Socialism. This accusation should cause us to ask them what wolf-in-sheep’s -clothing tricks THEY are using. There are lots of them:
Deficit Reduction. Republicans accuse Democrats of being irresponsible about deficit reduction: of imposing debt repayment obligations on future generations to support big government spending and deficits today. But since at least 1980, Republicans have shown the same indifference to deficits that they accuse their opponents of.
Conservatives have supported fiscal responsibility for a century in good faith, so they were credible spokespeople for this theme when President Reagan touted it in 1980. But here there was a difference. In Reagan’s case, the tool he proposed using was tax cuts. How can tax cuts reduce deficits? They would seem to lead to increases. Some of his team relied on the Laffer curve, an untested hypothesis that if tax rates were lowered, economic growth would increase so quickly that revenue would rise. But it was evident that even its supporters didn’t believe that. The Reagan team’s economic experts, such as David Stockman, realized that tax cuts equal revenue cuts, and instead posited that the real goal was to “starve the beast”—to reduce government revenues to the point of forcing spending cuts. But this didn’t work in practice, because even two term Republican Presidencies were unable to even slow the growth of government spending, much less decrease spending.
The point is that the deficit reduction plan was indeed a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing trick designed to save money for the high-income earners while not really caring about deficits. And today it is a trick to cut Social Security and Medicare without saying that this is what they want.
Respect for the truth. In the first debate, Governor Romney told the President that “you're entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts…” But it is the Republican campaign that has tried to make up their own facts. My blog shows how the major talking points of the Republican campaign are all based on made-up “facts” and fairy-tales entirely ungrounded in reality.
This disrespect for truth was seen clearly in the Presidential Debate of 3 October 2012. A careful review of Mitt Romney’s performance identified 27 significant errors of fact. A review in the New York
Times that placed an emphasis on being even-handed found far more outright errors and misleading facts quoted out of context in Mr. Romney’s statements than in Mr. Obama’s.
Willingness to harm the nation in order to get their way. What else do they say we are? The current Republican leadership is on the warpath about “job-killing regulations”. They claim progressives want to overregulate business and will cut economic growth. In other words, they accuse progressives of having an overarching goal of Big Government that overwhelms their secondary goal of jobs. But this same leadership has brought the country to the brink of default as an intentional tactic to create spending cuts in the social programs that they don’t like, with no concern over the S&P downgrading of U.S. debt that it prompted, especially in the face of S&P’s statement that it was concerned not about the ability of the government to pay its debts but of its willingness to let politics interfere with its actually paying. Downgrading US debt eventually raises interest rates and kills jobs. Regulations, on the other hand, actually create jobs by spurring innovation.
Thus, when they say something kills jobs (and that the proponents of that something don’t care), it means that THEIR policies will kill jobs and THEY don’t care.
More broadly, the Republican leadership is letting its obsession about lowering taxes get in the way of job growth. This conflict is all right with them, just as they accuse their opponents of supporting Big Government at the expense of job growth. The more the nation has embraced the low-tax goal, the worse job growth has been. The data are so clear on this: it would take a truly denial-based approach to fail to see that employment grew the most when taxes were raised, as under President Clinton, or when they were high, up until 1981, and that it stagnated during the Bush years when regulatory environments were more “pro-business”.
Truth. Commentator Rush Limbaugh says this about what progressives are:
We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that's where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.
The statement is that the left is organized to create a false story of everything, which progressives all stick to. But there are two fatal errors in this statement. First, Limbaugh’s statements have been analyzed for over 15 years, and he has a long track record of making up “facts” and making statements that are evidently untrue. But this is something “conservatives” regularly do—much more regularly than advocates for the Left.
The second fatal error is also a problem of projecting your own behavior on others: Limbaugh assumes here that the left runs, dominates, and controls sources of information. How could it possibly do that? Conservatives place high value on loyalty, and it is plausible that they could each agree to support other conservative opinions, even when they disagree, in the spirit of teamwork. But the left values individualism and tends to disparage loyalty. Leftists would not ignore or repeat lies by their colleagues—they would try to distinguish themselves by correcting the error, even at the risk of in-fighting.
Limbaugh and his colleagues are using a very interesting trick, which becomes more apparent when you read what else he says in the same article:
The Universe of Lies, The Universe of Reality -- they don't overlap anymore. And this is even bigger than global warming, which was my point yesterday. It's about everything that the left is involved in. What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax exposes, is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It's all lies! It is all oriented toward a political outcome. It's bigger than global warming.
The conclusion is clear: if the left, the scientific community, government, academia, and the media are ALL liars, then who CAN one trust?
Evidently the answer is: “me, and people who agree with me”. In other words Limbaugh and his friends are doing something which is tantamount to overthrowing American democracy. You can’t trust the learned institutions, you can only trust the Authorities, namely ourselves.
Incidentally, the process of distrusting most others and basing trust not on looking independently for facts and evidence is basically the description of clinical paranoia.
Why does the “right” lie like this?
Again, Mr. Limbaugh provides the answer, based on my great grandfather’s observation:
But if you live in The Universe of Lies, the last thing that you are governed by is the truth. The last thing you are governed by is reality. The only thing that matters to you is the advancement of your political agenda. And you tell yourself in The Universe of Lies that your agenda is so important the world will not survive without it and therefore you could lie, cheat, steal, destroy whoever you have to to get your agenda done -- because your opponents are eeevil, and in fighting eeevil, anything goes. There are no rules when you're in a fight with the Devil.
This seems to be the modus operandi of the “right” since it is hard to believe that intelligent people are spouting this kind of nonsense without knowing it. Limbaugh accuses the Left of believing it is in a fight with the devil, and therefore evil means, like lying, or justified by the noble end. Broadly speaking, Limbaugh is accusing the Left of not playing fair because the outcome justifies unfair tactics. Again, this suggests that the “Right” is using these techniques.
David Roberts of Grist makes some trenchant observations about this Limbaugh article and others like it :
The decline in trust in institutions [documented previously in surveys] has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that's not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality -- a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards -- designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That's why conservatives catch hell when they're skeptical of climate skepticism. They're messing with tribal cohesion and morale.
Consider what the Limbaugh/Morano crowd is saying about climate: not only that that the world's scientists and scientific institutions are systematically wrong, but that they are purposefully perpetrating a deception. Virtually all the world's governments, scientific academies, and media are either in on it or duped by it. The only ones who have pierced the veil and seen the truth are American movement conservatives, the ones who found death panels in the healthcare bill.
It's a species of theater, repeated so often people have become inured, but if you take it seriously it's an extraordinary charge. For one thing, if it's true that the world's scientists are capable of deception and collusion on this scale, a lot more than climate change is in doubt. These same institutions have told us what we know about health and disease, species and ecosystems, energy and biochemistry. If they are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they've generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything! Here we are hip-deep in postmodernism and it came from the right, not the left academics they hate.
Roberts is speculating here about this broader agenda, but it isn’t just a weird idea: it is a pretty good description of how the “right” has been acting. They DO believe the whole science-based (meaning evidence-based) structure of modern society is wrong. What you don’t see in this is the real belief (wolf-in sheep’s clothing) that if modern science is wrong, premodern (also known as medieval) theocracy is right. This is the root goal of the “intelligent design” movement—not just the overturning of teaching of evolution, but overturning science and democracy in favor of authority and theocracy. (ref to Physics Today article)
Ad Hominem attacks rather than questioning the logic, science, and facts. The Limbaugh discussions just cited show how the “Right” attacks advocates of climate change mitigation by saying that they are listening to the wrong people. Climate science is wrong because bad people are advocating it. Yet they often accuse the left of such attacks. A recent Tea Party post starts:
… At a table with no salt shaker and a Michelle Obama-approved menu, the Democrats’ conversation starts like this:
Can you believe the Republicans are taking away our contraception?
This dialogue quickly deteriorates into a misinformed, Obama-fueled fiasco: the wicked “one percent,” the “fairness” of free health care, equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities, etc.
Note how the beginning consists of a mocking reference to Mrs. Obama, apparently castigating the First Lady for promoting healthy food, then implicitly makes the false claim that Republicans are NOT trying to take away [women’s] contraception (a claim which is never backed up by quotes of what Republicans are actually saying). The parenthetical is important: the hot link on the assertion that Republicans are not trying to take away contraception features a critique of Nancy Pelosi and of Obama and never makes any positive claims about what the Right believes on contraception.
Note the gratuitous and false use of “Obama-fueled” here as well: alleged falsehoods and bad ideas are first attributed to enemies and only second stated, and even the statements are correct. No Democrat in Congress or the Administration has ever argued for equal outcomes, only for decreased disparities in paying the costs of government or receiving services such as health care or education.
This article hot links to a longer version whose sole method of exposition is to claim that “the Democrats want …” or the “-Democrats believe…” and virtually all of these claims are either made up or misleading. Some are completely delusional (“Democrats do not think the people can govern, provide, or think on their own.” “Want your child’s transportation to be a horse? Be a Democrat.”)
Divisiveness. The next thing they accuse progressive of is fomenting “class warfare”. This means pitting the interests of one class against another. But that is precisely the outcome of tax cuts for the wealthy: it increases the direct economic welfare of one class—high earners—over the rest of us. And in the longer term it cuts services the government provides to the middle and lower classes—services like education, Social Security, and Medicare. This is not a progressive description of what “conservatives” want to do—it is their own. They plainly say that they want to cut taxes on the most prosperous, and plainly are beginning to admit that they want make these cuts to social services.
Critics of President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address do this as well when they criticize the speech as being “divisive”. But a response that does not include saying where there is common ground is itself divisive. Being inclusive would imply a response that emphasizes points of commonality and downgrades concerns to those about HOW we achieve common goals.
The “Right” argues that their opponents need to make compromises and seek common ground—the theme of this paper is that this is because THEY refuse to make compromises or propose common ground. If one believes in authority, there cannot be common ground. To use Limbaugh’s excellent metaphor, there is no common ground or compromise between God and the devil.
There is another reason the “right” thinks we lie about climate change: they seem to believe that lies support our ability to make money. Steve Schneider, the pioneering climate scientist, explained why this is nonsense when he noted that the best way to get ahead in science—the express lane to winning a Nobel Prize—is to show that the previous paradigm is wrong. A climate change skeptic could make much more of a name for himself if he showed the previous consensus to be wrong than if his work just validated or extended the consensus.
Besides the fact that scientists are motivated more by the search for esteem or self-esteem than for money: most scientific skills pay more when they are offered in the business world rather than in the academic or advocacy or government worlds.
But proponents of climate “skepticism” can and do make money by their professions of belief. Political candidates in denial about climate can get contributions from people and organizations that would blacklist them if they indicated that they accept the established science of climate change. And entertainers such as Limbaugh can get bigger audiences by saying outrageous things about how scientists are lying to you than they can by acknowledging recognized scientific truths.
Since the 1960s “conservatives” have accused leftists of “elitism”. Ignoring the irony that this is a charge that Soviet Socialists used to make against their opponents, this is truly weird. It is weird because the right consists pretty heavily of the elite, in terms of income and wealth, in terms of education, in terms of social acceptance, and in terms of being the home of the organized business community, namely the largest corporations and their powerful trade associations. It is ironic because the discussion above demonstrates how the intellectual principle the right seems to be following is respect for authority, if not outright authoritarianism. And it is weird because they expect to attract the middle and lower middle classes by generating anger against the “elites” of the left while deflecting this anger from themselves, and it has worked.
The “Right” has been attacking the Left as elitists for at least 50 years, which as I show here is evidence that it is they who really are the elitists. But they have never been challenged effectively on this accusation.
When the “right” campaigned against Obama’s health care reforms, one of the most effective themes they used was “death squads”: panels who would decide who should qualify for health care and who would have to die. But death squads are the outcome of the current private insurance-based system that they are defending, in two separate ways. Insurance companies already decide who receives a particular procedure and who doesn’t based on money even when they put the patient’s health at risk. In the author’s case, his spouse was denied a cancer susceptibility test based on economic factors, a decision that placed her at a higher risk of death (admittedly, a trivially higher one). And many people without insurance have no access to preventive medicine that may avoid conditions like heart failure, a particularly evil form of death squad where the squad ALWAYS chooses death.
Creating straw man arguments that your opponent never believed but are easy to refute. Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan stated, “It’s a classic Barack Obama straw man: If anyone dares to point out the facts of his record, why then, they’re just being negative and pessimistic about the country. The new straw man is people hoping for the decline of America.’’ in September 2012, thus creating a statement that is in itself contradictory. It is unclear what kind of straw man he thinks Obama is creating. If Ryan means that he thinks Republicans are hoping for the decline of America, that is not a straw man, it is their actual tactics. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader, said in 2010 after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives that his primary goal for the next two years was to assure the Barack Obama was a one-term President. A primary goal, of course, takes precedence over secondary goals. Therefore if faced with a choice of creating jobs and helping Americans on one hand, and as a consequence increasing Obama’s chances of re-election on the other, Mr. McConnell told us which choice he would make.
And Republicans in the House repeatedly have taken steps that are intended to advance their own issues even at the expense of the Nation’s well-being, including a refusal to increase the federal debt limit and causing a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.
But if Mr. Ryan is concerned about creating straw men, how about the following statement he made in the same speech: “He treats private enterprise as little more than a revenue source for government. He views government as the redistributor and allocator of opportunity.” Obama never said anything even approaching this, nor do any of his policies, whether proposed or enacted, do this. And it isn’t even true from a narrow accounting perspective: corporate income taxes have been declining as a percent of profits for years, and many of the largest corporations pay no tax at all (in other words are not a source of revenue at all). So it is a straw man.
What has Obama done that redistributes or allocates opportunity? He has proposed increasing taxes for the wealthy but not redistributing the proceeds, instead using them for deficit reduction. Is the statement “allocates opportunity” a stealth reference to affirmative action programs, which have been the law of the land for decades? If not, what can it mean? So: another straw man.
I saw this myself in a response to my last blog, which talked about the Republican narrative’s foundation in fairy-tales. A commenter responded, “Why do you hate the rich? Don’t you want to be rich?…” The comment was totally disconnected with the article, since I never even talked about the rich, much less about the progressivity of the income tax. But clearly the commenter thought that if he was reading a progressive blog, it must talk about how evil the rich are and how we have to punish them by taking away their hard-earned income. This is an extreme case of “conservative”’s use of the straw man: in this case the commenter was putting words in my mouth that were not even distantly related to what I said.
Irrationality and Ideological Inflexibility. One cannot look at comments posted by “conservative” members of the public on blogs without quickly seeing how commonly they accuse Democrats or progressives of being obstinately ideological and clinging to beliefs even after they have been refuted. The problem with this accusation is that in contrast to the strong group-loyalty beliefs of the right that keeps most of them singing from the same song sheet, the left is more diverse and individualistic in their beliefs and positions. Clearly some leftists are irrational and ideological. But virtually any two leftists will support two different ideologies. More importantly, we see prominent Democrats shifting their beliefs based on new information, new arguments, or more pragmatic concerns.
For example, many liberal Democrats supported the single-provider health care system as the only feasible approach. Yet as the health care debate developed, most of these Representatives compromised first by accepting that the primary outcome of the legislation would be based on private insurance and later by accepting that the public single payer would not even be offered as an alternative.
Many Democrats, including President Obama, changed their minds on the issue of marriage equality, perhaps by observing how its implementation in some cities, states, and foreign countries failed to produce the moral disruption that opponents had feared, or perhaps based on the legal arguments that the California state judge wrote in this Proposition 8 decision, or perhaps for more pragmatic reasons. Many Democratic, but apparently no Republican, legislators did the same.
Imposing Federal Government Control over Local Decision-making. Another recurrent theme from current “conservatives” is that they do not want federal government interference in local decisions, such as in education. Another theme, although more in the background, is the concern about local land use planning being overturned by a sustainable development mandate at the federal, or more fear-inducingly global, level. The implicit claim is that progressives want to impose federal regulation on local decisions. But the “right” wants to do that in even more fundamental ways. Anti-abortion advocates want federal limits imposed upon state or local preference. Anti-drug advocates want federal regulation to be imposed on states that prefer partial legalization of drugs. Pro-gun advocates want federal laws to pre-empt local gun control ordinances. Anti-immigration advocates want restrictions on immigration and the rights of immigrants imposed on localities that would prefer to welcome new immigrants.
The canard about big government restricting our freedom by regulating local land use is particularly strange, because this is what the Right has been doing for 75 years. Have you ever wondered why all new suburbs seem to look alike? It’s because they are the consequences of “local” land use regulation that is based on a national model developed and promoted by the Federal Government, under the leadership of then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.
The “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” was enacted as the legislative response to Herbert Hoover’s attempt to address “the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building.” In other words, sprawl-inducing zoning was an attempt by the federal government to make local land use decisions more restrictive to the property owners in the interests of what conservatives call “social engineering.” Mr. Hoover, who was Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s and then went on to be President, convened an advisory committee to implement this act in 1921, and the first model ordinance was published in 1924.
Informal regulations supported by “conservatives” are equally effective at taking away freedom by imposing impersonal nationwide rules. When the author was trying to buy an apartment in the most location efficient neighborhood west of the Hudson River—the one where transportation costs would be the lowest-- I was told by the lenders that I couldn’t afford the asking price, and would be forced to choose a house where I didn’t want to live that would actually cost me more, because of the amount of driving I would have to do, than the home that I wanted. Many of my friends succumbed to these regulatory pressures and moved to outer locations against their preferences. I was fortunate enough to find one bank that would qualify me based on income that looked dubious to me but was able to satisfy their underwriters.
Similar biases in lending criteria apply to developers who want to build smarter developments compared to those doing sprawl-style business-as-usual. One cannot defend this contradiction by claiming that what “conservatives” really want is federal non-regulation to trump local affirmative regulation: the anti-abortion and anti-drug advocates want to impose federal restrictions on local freedoms. The anti-smart growth movement wants to encourage local governments to restrict development, at the expense of jobs.
There is another explanation for this parallelism in which “Conservatives” accuse the left of the very things that they are doing that goes beyond my great-grandfather’s psychological observation. Accusing the other side of what you yourself are guilty of is a great tactic for deflecting blame. If you are lying it is much more convincing to accuse the other side of lying than to be defensive and say you are telling the truth. If you are having an affair with a staffer it is a lot more effective if you accuse your opponent of marital infidelity than to try to cover up or defend your own actions. Perhaps the issue is part of a conscious strategy.
But whatever the reason, it is important for the public to look at what the “right” is saying about its opponents and ask what it means about those making the accusations.
And it is important for progressives to recognize this trick and respond to it appropriately. Thus, when Romney accuses Obama supporters of being “moochers”, one could note how many of Romney supporters benefit from government largess: how Red states always take more federal money than they provide, and how Romney has withheld his own tax forms that would show whether or not he is a moocher. When the “right” accuses liberals of being elitist, one could note how the “conservative” agenda is set entirely by rich men for the benefit of the powerful. When a “conservative” accuses a progressive of hating the rich, one could question whether they in turn hate the poor.
And of course we could hope that if this technique of vilification gets discredited because it is no longer effective, that political arguments could focus on what the best ideas are rather than what the other side is doing wrong. All sides would be well advised to consider this approach.