Somewhere there is a country that has two factions. One of the factions is large, comprising most of the people. The other faction is small. The positions of the larger faction are based on facts, reason, and compassion. Every belief of the smaller faction is motivated by gain, politics, and outright hatred. The smaller faction holds undue power, illegally and immorally.
The larger faction loves the chief executive because of the content of his character. The smaller faction hates him because of the color of his skin. Their hatred is so great that they will even oppose things that they’ve supported simply because the chief executive likes them.
Somewhere there is such a country. This is not that country. I do believe, however, that this is the country of Paul Krugman’s and his supporters’ imagination and it is that imagination that Clive Crook criticizes in his recent column:
A line has been crossed when the principal spokesmen for contending opinions have no curiosity whatsoever about their opponents’ ideas and radiate cold, steady contempt for each other. That’s dangerous. Civil society depends on a minimum threshold of tolerance and mutual respect. Fall too far below it, and the seething paralysis you see in Washington could soon be the least of your concerns. This is America’s biggest political problem — and Krugman’s not part of the solution.
Meanwhile, for the side that thinks it has the better arguments, naked contempt for dissenters is plain bad tactics. That isn’t how you change people’s minds. Better to fire up the base with a little demagoguery (such as calling conservatives racist, as Krugman is wont to do) than reach out to the uncommitted? I don’t think so. The enthusiasm you inspire on your side is canceled out by an equal and opposite reaction on the other. Krugman stirs up the right in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh, for instance, inflames the left. Granted, if you’re going to have a spokesman, better a Nobel laureate than a talk-radio clown. The fact remains that Krugman’s weary disdain for roughly half the country is self-defeating.
Really, I just wish he’d meet a wider range of people. It’s true that the modern Republican Party includes a growing number of extremists who have no interest in the kind of discussion I’m recommending. In their case, attempts at outreach would be so much wasted breath. But if Krugman got out of his bubble a bit more, he’d find that the other half of the country contains no more than its fair share of knaves, fools and lunatics — and a lot of thoughtful, public-spirited Americans whose views on the proper scale and scope of government are different from his, yet worthy of respect.
Let me give just two examples of that view of the country in operation: the ARRA fiscal stimulus package and the recent gun control legislation that failed in the Congress.
According to that view a large enough stimulus package would have jolted the country out of the economic doldrums in which we’ve settled, Democrats championed a much larger fiscal stimulus, a larger stimulus wasn’t enacted solely because Republicans opposed it, Republicans opposed it solely because they hate Barack Obama, and they hate Barack Obama solely because he’s black.
That view assumes far too much, is empirically suspect, and drastically over-simplified.
There are good theoretical reasons to think that all other things being equal a fiscal stimulus with the right size, timing, and construction could have that effect. Unfortunately, in the real world things are never equal and, especially in a liberal democracy, no bill enacted into law ever has or will have the right size, timing, or construction. That includes the ARRA. The empirical evidence that the stimulus packages that actually get enacted into law have the desired effect is to say the least ambiguous.
Democrats never championed a larger stimulus package. That is a lie. You will search in vain for any public statement by a White House official that they did. They may have privately supported one, it might have been talked about casually among the president’s White House economic advisors, but, at least according to the best evidence we have, such a bill was never seriously entertained. The largest bill that Democrats would pass was the one that got enacted into law. Any reasonable reading of the actual bill suggests it was not properly timed, its implementation spread out over too long a period, and too much of it consisted of projects that were too much a Democratic political wishlist, payoffs to constituencies, contributors, bundlers, and so on.
It might be true that every single Republican hated Barack Obama and voted against the ARRA for that reason alone. I doubt it but I can’t read their hearts or minds. The Greeks had a word for it. Frene, I think.
With respect to the recent gun control legislation, its advocates proclaim that 90% of the American people supported it and the Republicans prevented it from passing nonetheless, presumably because of their hatred of Barack Obama or their love of the NRA. There is some evidence that 90% of Americans support universal background checks for purchasing firearms. It’s possible that was just a snapshot. I know of no evidence that even a simple majority of Americans supported everything that was in the actual bill that failed to be enacted.
It might also be true that every single Congressional Republicans continues to hate Barack Obama and refused to vote for the bill solely for that reason. Again, I can’t read their hearts or minds. I don’t think you need to resort to that explanation. Constituent service is probably enough.
I think the real United States is actually quite a bit different from that imaginary country. It has two major political parties consisting of many, many more factions than just two but for simplicity let’s say the country has three approximately equal-sized factions. One of the those factions consists of yellow dog Democrats who will vote for anybody with a D next to their name, another Republican equivalent of that group, and a third faction whose members may lean one way or another but have no permanent loyalty to either side.
Either Democrats or Republicans will leap on science and evidence that supports their preconceived views and reject the science or evidence that contradicts those views.
Both Democratic and Republican politicians have one overwhelming, dominating priority: election or re-election. They may have other values as well but their hierarchy of values is such that those are lost in the drive to achieve and retain office.
I doubt that either Democrats or Republicans know or care much about President Obama’s character. I think they’re both acutely aware of his race which I find rather sad. I wish that the president, his advisors, and supporters did not feel the need to go out of their way to alienate those who disagree with them. Like Mr. Crook, I don’t think it’s healthy for a liberal democracy or productive of the sorts of agreements we need to reach for our society to work.