Sweet Imaginary Reason

It has come up before. It’s Isaiah 1:18 – “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Back in the sixties – and maybe you had to be there – Lyndon Johnson was asked by a national magazine for his favorite quotation and he quoted Isaiah – “Come now, and let us reason together.”

And that was effective – when he said that, he cut the legs out from under his angry and often hysterical critics. How could you argue with that? And in 1965 he was Time’s Man of the Year – he got things done by working with people. It was bipartisanship – he’d call up his Republican friend Everett Dirksen and get his vote on this or that. And we got Medicare and Medicaid – those without means would not die in the streets like dogs – and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – no discrimination in employment or in the use of public facilities – and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – everyone gets to vote, damn it – and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 – that one outlawed discrimination in housing – and Project Head Start and so on. Johnson was crude and a bully – a lot of the reasoning would eventually hit a dead end and come down to vote with me or watch your career end – but the principle was always up front. Reasoning was good, and getting hysterical and trying to scare the crap out of the American people and name-calling and sanctimonious posturing was bullshit. That’s what people seemed to think.

Yes, maybe you had to be there – times change. John Amato and David Neiwert offer Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane – their now book on just how crazy things have become. But reason has been on the wane for some time. See Ann Coulter – How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) – and that’s from 2004 – you cannot reason with them, you see. Amato and Neiwert make the same point, even if, unlike Coulter, they carefully document what is being said on the right and what seems to be its internal logic, and then consider matters of economic and cultural motivation. Coulter doesn’t bother with that sort of thing – she’s just a flamethrower. But reason was abandoned long ago. Amato and Neiwert lament that. Coulter embraces it. But everyone agrees there’s not much of it around these days.

And maybe reason is overrated. At Three Quarks Daily – no, really – you’ll find this abstract:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.

Ah, we only reason to get the best of others:

Reasoning so conceived is adaptive, given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers.

Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively with the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow the persistence of erroneous beliefs. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better.

In all of these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and favor conclusions in support of which arguments can be found.

In short, we’ve been kidding ourselves. We don’t want the truth, reasoned out. We want to persuade, or just persuade ourselves. And we call that reason, for some reason.

See this hypothetical example from tinfoiler:

When my son Hunter asked me why it was okay for Bristol Palin to have a baby before she was married, I told him that God has special rules for special people. God knew that Bristol could become very rich from having a baby, so He granted her a pregnancy. Since she is the daughter of Sarah Palin – and the name Bristol Palin can be rearranged to spell “Orbit Plans” – she is pretty much an angel, at least by the official Bible definition. And that pretty much makes her son like a Jesus, technically speaking. This is just more proof that the blessed Palin family has wonderful and holy plans for true Americans.

After explaining this to my son, he told me that he wanted to be sex-educated at a public school so that he could have a Jesus baby too. I smacked him in the mouth and told him that sex education is only for liberals and atheists. As good Christians, we should be ashamed of sexuality and our bodies, unless you are chosen by God, like Bristol Palin.

Yep, you can reason anything out. And whether you find that sort of reasoning compelling depends on what you want to believe, and not much else. And if freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose – Kris Kristofferson via Janis Joplin – then reason’s just another word for nothing much to say – for smugness – I’m right and you’re a damned fool. We just pretty-up smugness with a nicer name, and say we’re being reasonable. And of course people are seldom won over by reason, or what we call reason. Lyndon Johnson knew that. Getting things done was never about the reasonableness of ideas.

But Johnson put on a good show. He made his Great Society ideas sound reasonable – these things are what reasonable citizens of a reasonable nation would do. Behind the scenes – assembling the votes – it was something else entirely.

But you have to have some ideas. See this video of Utah senator Bob Bennett:

As I look out at the political landscape now, I find plenty of slogans on the Republican side, but not very many ideas. And indeed, if you raise specific ideas and solutions, as I tried to do on health care with Ron Wyden, you are attacked with the same vigor as we’ve seen in American politics all the way back to the arguments over slavery and polygamy. You are attacked as being a wimp, insufficiently pure, and unreliable. …

The pendulum will swing. And we will take control of the House – I think that’s going to happen – and frankly, with the death of Robert C. Byrd there’s a chance we will take control of the Senate as well. At which point, it’s “thank you for the slogans” and “thank you for the election.” But in the immortal words of Robert Redford in the movie, The Candidate, “What do we do now?”

Of course Bennett, the Republican senator from Utah, was one of the highest-profile victims of the Republican Party’s ideological “purge” this year – he won’t be on the ballot in November as the party met and decided someone else should run, as he had talked with Democrats now and then – and maybe had even reasoned with them. Perhaps he hadn’t read Ann Coulter’s book. But as his Senate career comes to a close he can be more candid, and rely on his own reasoning skills:

Bennett told a Republican group the party could even take back the Senate soon but will lose both houses just as fast if the GOP continues to rely on slogans and not solutions. …

“Indeed, if you raise specific ideas and solutions, as I’ve tried to do on health care with [Oregon Democratic Sen.] Ron Wyden, you are attacked with the same vigor as we’ve seen in American politics all the way back to slavery and polygamy…

“The concern I have is that ideology and a demand for absolute party purity endangers our ability to govern once we get into office,” Bennett said.

Steve Benen comments:

I suspect many in the Republican Party will dismiss this as sour grapes. Bennett was rejected by his own state party caucus, they’ll say, so he’s just bitter now.

While I certainly can’t speak to Bennett’s motivations or state of mind, I think his observations about Republicans are critically important. The party that once liked to throw around the “party of ideas” moniker has become devoid of almost all thought. Indeed, in most GOP circles, ideas themselves are suspect – they’re probably the result of some kind of egg-head intellectual who reads books instead of watching Fox News.

Bennett has to be frustrated that his career is ending because members of his own party were outraged that he tried to solve problems by working with other senators (i.e., his job). But the more important point is that the development itself is evidence of a Republican Party with a kind of reflexive sickness – an allergy to substance, problem-solving, compromise, and reason.

Reason is nice, but you have to have grist for the mill – you have to have some ideas. But Benen points out that current Republicans have occasionally come up with policy ideas, but they have ended up opposing their own proposals – you see, the Democrats agreed. That’s a problem. You do, after all, have to give at least the appearance of reason.

But Benen points out that several key Senate Republicans said they would never agree to any compromise on energy policy if it included a cap-and-trade provision. As Benen summarizes – “If a proposal puts a cap on carbon emissions, and applies that cap to anyone or anything, anywhere, even a little, Republicans said they will kill the legislation and not allow the Senate to vote on it.”

And he cites UCLA’s Mark Kleiman suggesting this is crazy:

Why, I’m so old that I remember when market-simulating pollution-control regulations – polluter charges or cap-and-trade – were the official conservative alternative to command-and-control regulation. I was sympathetic to that critique, and frustrated about the environmental movement’s unwillingness to see reason.

But now that the enviros have embraced a GHG tax or its cap-and-trade equivalent as the way to deal with global warming, conservative support is nowhere in sight. They’re all too afraid of Grover Norquist.

Remember this the next time a conservative explains how we ought to voucherize public education. The minute that happens, the conservatives will come back and decide that we need to means-test the vouchers. That done, they’ll attack the remaining program as “welfare.”

This is not a group of people it’s possible to do business with.


This is important. Cap-and-trade – any version of it – has been deemed wholly unacceptable by Republicans this year. But given the intense opposition to the idea, it’s easy to forget that Republicans used to consider cap-and-trade a reasonable, market-based mechanism that was far preferable to command-and-control directives that the right found offensive.

And Benen adds that he’s not talking about the distant past – as the official position of the McCain/Palin Republican presidential ticket was to support cap-and-trade. And Benen notes they were not kidding:

Not just in theory, either. The official campaign website in 2008 told Americans that John McCain and Sarah Palin “will establish … a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” McCain/Palin’s official position added, “A cap-and-trade system harnesses human ingenuity in the pursuit of alternatives to carbon-based fuels.”

And he notes that even George W. Bush endorsed cap-and-trade. But times change:

Democratic policymakers could, today, endorse the policy put forward by the Republican ticket from 2008, and GOP senators would filibuster it. Republicans said they wanted cap-and-trade, but now refuse to take “yes” for an answer.

The goal posts are always on the move, which in turn makes substantive policymaking with Republican lawmakers practically impossible.

No one is reasoning together, and Matthew Yglesias adds more detail:

Another major example I can think of is the Earned Income Tax Credit, once touted as the conservative alternative to welfare and/or restoring the real value of the minimum wage, but now supported almost exclusively by liberals while conservatives castigate the poor for not paying taxes. Section 8 housing vouchers, put forward as an alternative to public housing and then repeatedly cut by GOP congresses is another one. Of course this kind of consideration doesn’t invalidate any given idea – I think auctioned, tradable emissions permits actually are the best way to regulate most sources of pollution and that housing vouchers are superior to old-school public housing. But this kind of continual pulling away of the football by the conservative movement makes it quite difficult for us to reach stable consensus around decent policies.

And Benen piles on:

In perhaps my favorite example, the concept of an individual mandate as part of health care reform was, in fact, a Republican idea. Now, the GOP considers it the single most offensive part of the Democratic policy.

The point isn’t to point out Republican inconsistencies – that’s fairly routine. The point is to demonstrate that Republicans are so fundamentally unserious about solving public policy challenges, that they’ll shamelessly move the goalposts at a moment’s notice. The party supports cap-and-trade, EITC, industry bailouts, housing vouchers, and mandatory health insurance – right up until there’s a Democratic president. Then, Republicans are no longer willing to even consider Republican ideas.

But they say they’re being reasonable. Go figure.

And Bush’s speechwriter, David Frum, is now considered unreasonable, which puzzles him:

These days, the question I hear most from political comrades is: “What the hell happened to you?”

Okay, okay, my old friend Andrew Coyne put it a little more politely than that in a recent magazine column. Here’s what he actually wrote: “Things have come to a pretty pass in the Republican Party when David Frum is the mushy moderate of the piece.”

I feel exactly the same way!

But now he is always being bashed by Rush Limbaugh. And Frum tells his tale:

Like so many in my age cohort, I became a conservative in the crisis years of the late 1970s. Inflation was raging, economic growth had stalled, social order seemed to be breaking down, and the Democratic West seemed to have lost its nerve and confidence in the struggle against its enemies.

Conservatives had answers to these problems: cut taxes, reduce government, repeal price controls, print less money, jail criminals, trust individuals, rebuild armed forces, strike back against terrorists and hostage-takers.

These ideas were tested, and they worked. Many conservatives were frustrated that we did not succeed more completely. I know: I was one. My first book, published in 1994, lamented that Reagan-ism had reached its political limits. I predicted that Republicans would continue to win elections, but warned that these election victories were ceasing to produce political results.

And that’s what happened:

Republicans won smashing political victories in 1993 and 1994: capturing the mayoralties of New York and Los Angeles in 1993, winning control of both houses of Congress in 1994. They implemented new anti-crime policies and enacted welfare reform. The number of murders dropped by more than one-third nationwide, by more than two-thirds in New York City – launching an American urban renaissance.

I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1996. And there I began to notice something disturbing. While the congressional victory of 1994 had ceased to produce much in the way of important conservative legislation, it sure was producing a lot of wealth for individual conservatives. They were moving from the staff offices of Congress to lobbying firms and professional associations. Washington (to quote something I’d write later) began to feel like a giant Tupperware party, where people you had thought of as friends suddenly seemed always to be trying to sell you something. Acquaintances of mine began accepting all-expense-paid trips to the South Pacific from Jack Abramoff.

Whenever things get tough for the Republican Party, conservatives will draw a separation between (good, pure) philosophical conservatism and (compromised, tainted) Republican politics. But the people who began making a lot of money out of politics in the 1990s did so precisely as conservatives. “Here’s why conservatives should support Microsoft, not Netscape,” they would explain. “AT&T is right from a conservative point of view, and Verizon is wrong,” another would chime. “Conservatives cherish federalism — and that’s why we must insist that electrical utilities continue to be regulated by the state power commissions!”

And then came George Bush and Frum was recruited to join the administration as a speech-writer, and things got worse:

My initial brief was domestic policy and economics, and it soon become impossible to avoid noticing that the administration’s economic policies were not working very well.

Even as it fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration dramatically increased domestic spending (including the first permanent new entitlement program since 1974, the hugely costly prescription drug benefit for senior citizens). Taxes were cut in 2001 and 2003. Big deficits ballooned and a great consumption boom exploded. The stock market and the housing market soared – but median wages stagnated.

It came down to this:

Conservative economic policies, which had saved the United States and the other advanced democracies from stagnation in the 1980s, suddenly seemed bereft of answers for the economic challenges of the 21st century.

This worried me. What worried me even more was how little it seemed to worry so many of my friends and colleagues from the conservative world and the Bush administration. A quarter century before, Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman had famously said that it was the job of conservatives to attack weak claims, not weak claimants. We would creatively use the power of freedom to improve conditions for everyone. What had happened to that idealistic drive?

So much of our energy was being absorbed instead by cultural battles left behind from the unfinished business of the 1960s and 1970s. Here, too often, we were on the wrong side of history: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we’d been fighting to protect the common-sense instincts of ordinary people from elite interference. Now, in the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case, with stem cell research, on gay rights issues, it was we who had become the interfering elite, against a society that was reaching its own new equilibrium.

That’s not how the other conservatives saw it of course, and it cost them:

We saw a country divided in two, red states and blue, NASCAR vs. NPR, real America against the phonies in the cities. A movement that had begun as an intellectual one now scornfully pooh-poohed the need for people in government to know anything much at all. But expertise does matter, and the neglect of expertise leads to mismanagement and failure – as we saw in Iraq, in Katrina and in the disregard of warning signals from the financial market. It was under a supposedly pro-market administration that the United States suffered the worst market failure of the post-war era, and that should have sobered us. Instead, we rallied to Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber.

Disregarding evidence and expertise, we shrugged off warnings of environmental problems….

Conservatives stopped taking governance seriously – and so Americans ceased to trust conservatives in government.

And of course it is hard to reason about government when one side has stopped taking governance seriously. What is there to talk about?

But that is political discourse today. And of course we should reason together – we really should. How else will we get anything done? But it would be easier if there actually were such a thing as reason. It seems there never was.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Conservatism, Conservative Thought, Let Us Reason Together, Republican Tantrums, Republicans in the Wilderness, Taking Governance Seriously and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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