The Party of Denial

06/01/2014 09:56 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2014

Can the right continue to succeed as the party of unreality? In the recent past, conservatives have denied climate change, as well as evolution. Now, their strategy is to deny the reality of increasing concentration of income and wealth.

When Thomas Piketty's book appeared, providing new documentation on increasing capital concentration, the right was temporarily thrown off guard. Some resorted to the claim that inequality was, by definition, earned, and necessary to produce incentives in a capitalist system. But somehow, our market economy did just fine -- better in fact -- back in the 1950s and 1960s with far lower levels of inequality. And much of Europe matches our growth rates with far less inequality. Others simply denied that inequality has been increasing.

As Paul Krugman recently wrote in his blog, inequality-denial dates to the 1980s.

It involved throwing many different arguments against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Inequality isn't rising; it is rising, but it's offset by social mobility; it's cancelled by greater aid to the poor (which we're trying to destroy, but never mind that); anyway, inequality is good. All these arguments have been made at the same time; none of them ever gets abandoned in the face of evidence -- they just keep coming back.

The right's latest gambit is to challenge the veracity of Piketty's numbers. The normally reputable Financial Times published a screed May 23 by Chris Giles, claiming that Piketty made serial errors and cherry-picked his numbers.

But with Piketty's devastating, point-by-point rebuttal, it's now clear that it was Giles who made a fool of himself.

On the climate change front, Speaker John Boehner says he's "not qualified" to assess the science of climate change, but that hasn't stopped him from leading efforts to block policies that might mitigate it.

The Pentagon, usually dear to conservatives, is one of the government agencies that takes climate change and sea-level rise seriously. The Navy's bases happen to be at sea level. Norfolk is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. So the Pentagon has a serious program of research and mitigation.

The Republican solution is to pass legislation to prohibit the Defense Department from even studying climate change. Now, that raises denial to a high art.

In Florida, where governor Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott refuse to say whether they thinks climate change is caused by humans, Miami is among the most vulnerable of all U.S. cities. Consider this recent exchange:

Q: In 2011 or 2010, you were much more doubtful about climate change. Now you're sounding less doubtful about man-made climate change because now you're not saying 'Look, I doubt the science.' Now you're saying: 'I'm not a scientist.' Am I right in guessing that?

Scott: Well, I'm not a scientist. But I can tell you what we've accomplished. We put a lot of effort into making sure that we take care of our natural treasures -- the Everglades, making sure water flows south, any flooding around our coast. So we're doing the right thing.

Question (asked by citizen-activist): So do you believe in the man-made influence on climate change?

Scott: Nice seeing you guys.

The problem with denial as an all-purpose strategy is that at some point reality catches up with you. The party position on concentrated wealth, or weird weather increasingly contradicts the lived experience of most people.

But ordinary people are, alas, comforted by denial, too. That's why folks who are plainly being screwed by the economic system's distribution of rewards oppose estate taxes and buy lottery tickets. Against all evidence, they are confident that some day, they'll be rich, too. It's why people rebuild houses on flood plains, and why Miami, insanely, is still enjoying a waterfront condo boom.

I wish I could report that the right's denial will just collapse of its own weight. It surely deserves to. But to achieve a political breakthrough on such issues as the gross inequality of American capitalism and the steadily building climate disaster, we need more than just the weight of evidence: we'll need a lot more leadership from the party of reality than we've seen lately.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.

Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook. Follow Robert Kuttner on Twitter.