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The Republican War on Reality

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In his column in today's Washington Post, George Will made the following extraordinary -- if unwitting -- statement about potential GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney: "Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from 'data' ... Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?"

As I have argued before, this contempt for fact and reason is reflective of a deep personality divide that now dominates America's political system. Specifically, the Republican Party base has come to be dominated by authoritarian core whose worldview is deeply informed by emotional antipathy both to out-groups and, perhaps more fundamentally, to uncertainty and complexity. It's not new that Republican candidates for office would play on those antipathies to attract votes or that such influences would affect law-making itself. But perhaps more than ever before, Republican policy proposals are now almost entirely reducible to these same interconnected antipathies. Whereas electoral politics always involve some emotional appeals designed around us-vs.-them frames, policy debates and lawmaking notionally rely to some degree on facts, interests and trade-offs, requiring something other than gut-level expulsions. But such considerations are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the GOP.

Earlier this year, critics jumped on Senator John Kyl when he falsely asserted that over 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's services related to "terminating pregnancies." The actual figure is far lower, but as is typical of Republican elites these days, Kyl certainly wasn't going to admit that he actually made a mistake. Doing so has itself become anathema to the modern right. Instead, Kyl's office clarified that the Senator's remark was "not intended to be a factual statement." "Not intended to be a factual statement" drew howls of derision and became an instant classic among pop cultural references. But for a worldview premised so deeply on emotion rather than reason, it ultimately did not matter whether Planned Parenthood spent 90 percent of its resources on abortion, or 5 percent. Planned Parenthood is detestable, and all right-thinking people understand this. Therefore, Kyl ought to be able to heap scorn on what it does unconstrained by such nuisances as whether he actually characterized the organization's activities accurately. Will was able to put the word "data" in scare quotes for precisely this reason -- that it really doesn't matter what's true in the mundane world of numbers or discreet pieces of information. What matters is whether we are able to express clearly and unabashedly our deepest resentments.

Twenty years ago, conservatives launched a full-throated attack on "political correctness" and "relativism" because of their frustration with an academic climate that challenged their ability to offer judgments unfettered by cultural sensitivities about an increasingly diverse and complex world. Such sensitivities blunted their ability to make clear, categorical moral statements about right and wrong, leading to "the death of outrage," as William Bennett put it. What's bracing to see in 2011 is that facts themselves represent the same impediment for conservatives that political correctness did two decades ago -- as an appalling constraint on the right's God-given right to unabashed condemnation.

I think it's fair to say that most people, at one time or another, feel that kind of anger in their gut and a consequent urge to heap invective on the objects of their rage without having to worry over whether they've considered all sides of a situation before doing so. What's remarkable about the contemporary right, however, is the extent to which this urge is now predominant and has been raised, in many ways, to its supreme value. This is consistent with what we know about the clear tendencies of more authoritarian-minded individuals -- a hatred of ambiguity, a discomfort with difference, a greater tendency to seek out information sources that confirm their biases and distaste for thinking about complexity. In place of such potential sources of tempering of initial reactions, the modern right has developed a bracing factual relativism in service of this deeper set of impulses.

Even the presumably more considered, policy-oriented party leaders, like Paul Ryan, are only really using policy proposals to express the same contempt for the realities of a world not easily reducible to simple-minded solutions to challenging problems. Ryan's budget proposals have been repeatedly exposed as fraudulent, as have his desperate defenders' resort to bogus data. But the underlying truth of Ryan's budgets is that if we cut taxes on the well-off and stop coddling everyone else, the world will be a better place. Having to prove that this is true, by resort to detailed analysis of a complex reality is, in the end, just a hassle. But more than that, it's an infuriating imposition.

I can hear many objections. One would be that folks on the left also proffer simple-minded solutions to complex problems. But one would be hard-pressed to find such open contempt for data, in general, in debates within liberal policy circles.

Whether we're talking about reducing or eliminating taxes, climate change, evolution, what Planned Parenthood does or doesn't do, the president's birth certificate, the role that the Community Reinvestment Act did or did not play in the financial crisis, or the nature and extent of inequality, for the contemporary right, facts are increasingly an encumbrance.

Facts serve a purpose in helping the right to simulate reasoned discussion over policy, a sop to standard media approaches to reporting on politics. Relatedly, Republicans' increasingly pseudo-factual policy positions also serve to keep mainstream media occupied with reporting their preposterous claims as if they have factual legitimacy. But beyond that, facts are an aggravation, a source of righteous indignation, operating as they do to prevent right-minded people from expressing unalloyed animus. There has been much talk in recent years of a Republican war on science. But that's really just a subset of a larger war -- on facts themselves. When George Will, about as wonky and self-serious a commentator as the right has, reveals such contempt for data, you know the anti-reality takeover of the modern right is nearly complete.

Jonathan Weiler's most recent book is Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington and published by Cambridge University Press.

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