Meta-Commentary

Arguments

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on February 3, 2011

By way of expanding on the point I made in my last post, I want to revisit the classic quote from Ron Suskind’s 2004 NYT Magazine piece:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Over the last two years, that quote has become mental shorthand for a real divide between Democrats and Republicans: Democrats argue from reality, while Republicans argue with reality. Consider “Fox Geezer Syndrome” and Conor Friedersdorf writing on Keith Olbermann: the crucial difference is that while both Beck and Olbermann are working to stir the same passions, they’re proceeding from fundamentally different starting points. Olbermann, for all his faults, started in reality and used that as a launching point for liberal invective. Beck often finds reality insufficiently conspiratorial, and thus must invent his own.

That same tendency applies, in a weaker form, to legislative processes and outcomes. Joshua Green highlighted Mitch McConnell’s success in redefining acceptable use of the filibuster; Democratic attempts to respond to that shift recently fell flat. Granted, organizing around a pre-existing mechanism is easier than modifying it, but McConnell really did have some insight about the electorate and their methods of assessing legislative success that wasn’t shared by his Senate colleagues. His hunch, now vindicated by election returns, has fundamentally altered the way Senate business is done. Democrats, still in the majority and with a viable route to doing the same, couldn’t get enough of their caucus on board to make filibuster reform happen.

Another admittedly imperfect example is the brouhaha surrounding the public option and the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, elected officials confronted unrealistic demands from activists. The White House felt–correctly–that the stakes were too high to prioritize those concerns over Senate arithmetic (though, it should be noted, that math wouldn’t matter if not for McConnell). Confronted with similarly unrealistic demands for repeal, however, the GOP gamely held votes, and eminence grises like Orrin Hatch continue insisting that the public wants repeal, when the polling doesn’t support that conclusion.

Again, these are all flawed examples. Orrin Hatch is almost certainly more willing to hew to the party line in light of Sen. Bennett’s fate, and the failure of the ACA would’ve harmed the Democratic Party far more than the failure of repeal will harm Republicans, so long as they all vote for it. For all that, I think there’s something to the distinction. In speculating about the “how” of this , smarter people than I have used the term “epistemic closure.” In addition to being truly awful jargon, I don’t think the term gets you anywhere.

Far more interesting than how the cocoon was built is why it was built, and why it is maintained. The answer is simple: in prioritizing narrative over knowledge, the GOP is elevating politics above punditry (and enraging pundits who aren’t on board with the project). Narratives are how great swaths of humanity are organized; the pull quote from Exodus is not “in light of brutal working conditions and insufficient compensation, I enjoin you to address the situation, or, failing that, to let my people go.” Republicans are betting on a story that, in its simplicity and clarity, is far more accessible and persuasive than the facts arrayed against it. They won the first tilt, and it remains to be seen if reality-as-perceived-by-the-electorate will diverge sharply enough from reality-as-promulgated-by-Republicans for them to lose the next.

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