Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Totality of the Anti-Social Evidence

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week, I followed the evidence in my ongoing discussion of the notion of "false equivalence" -- in which I (like many observers) have been rejecting the idea that "both sides are equally bad" in American politics (see, for example, here, here, and here) -- and reached a very unfortunate and unexpected conclusion.  In my Verdict column on Thursday and Dorf on Law post on Friday, I described how the leadership of the Republican Party has been taken over by a group that can best be described as "sociopaths."  Relying on standard and clinical definitions of sociopathy, I discussed how the Republican leadership's anti-social behavior has become driven by (among other symptoms) an unmistakable "disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations."

Of course, making such an observation is rather shocking.  Indeed, part of the sinister brilliance of the Republican Party leadership's current strategy is to rely on people's better natures, counting on general politeness among the population.  People genuinely do want not to speak (or even to think) that one group of politicians would be so utterly anti-social, so much worse than the (low) norms that we had come to expect from our political leaders.  As I have mentioned before, for example, citizens in a focus group earlier this year expressed shock and disbelief when told the actual content of the Romney/Ryan economic plan, leading them to think that the information that they had received was inaccurate.  People do not want to believe ill of others, even in the face of clear evidence.

Yet if one stops saying, "That can't be what's happening," it has become impossible not to see the relentless strategy of the modern Republican leadership as one based on both goals and tactics that demonstrate this very "disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations."  The opposite of the Golden Rule is, essentially, to believe that others are undeserving of what a person himself believes is rightfully his to take.

Even so, because everyone displays some behavior (cutting in line, cheating on taxes, bullying weaker or "other" classmates) at some point in one's life that could be described as anti-social or sociopathic, the assertion that we are seeing a group act in ways that merits those general labels boils down to a classic totality-of-the-evidence style of inquiry.  One or two examples can be explained away, but a clear pattern becomes another matter altogether.  Here, therefore, I will simply offer a few more examples of the type of behavior that, I believe, demonstrate the unique extremes to which the modern Republican party has gone -- extreme behavior which has accelerated in degree and kind over the last several years.

When one begins to collect such examples, what quickly becomes clear is how deeply into the Party leadership's DNA this attitude has reached.  This post is not nearly long enough to describe more than a few such examples, which is exactly the point.

The distinction between goals and tactics (a variation on substance versus form) is perhaps imperfect, but I think it captures the basic distinction at work here.  The Republican Party's leaders are now pursuing a policy agenda (goals) that is obviously harmful to the vast majority of the non-powerful, non-wealthy people in the country and the world.  Moreover, they are gathering power in a way (tactics) that displays contempt for the idea that they should play by the same rules that they aggressively enforce on others.


With the ongoing tragedy along the U.S. eastern seaboard on all of our minds, some commentators have recalled that the the Republican leadership in the House (led by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan) took a firm stand against providing federal relief funds after last year's big hurricane (Irene), unless other programs that help the less fortunate were reduced to offset the federal budget effect of disaster relief.  As I will discuss at some length next week, this callousness is the apotheosis of the abuse of the "future generations" meme in Republican politics.  As a matter of sociopathic behavior, it displays a willingness to let people suffer -- people whose suffering is very much a current and salient matter -- unless one receives something that one wants in return.  This lack of empathy is one of the things that most clearly separates the radicals who took over the Republican Party from the vast majority of the people who continue to support it.

As Professor Dorf described earlier this week, the Food Stamps program has become a favorite target of the Ryan-led budget hawks in the Republican leadership.  Food Stamps had long enjoyed bipartisan support, being run through the Department of Agriculture and designed specifically to provide food to hungry people.  After Bill Clinton's capitulation on "ending welfare as we know it," however, it became clear that the problem in the minds of leading Republicans was not the mythical welfare mother in the Cadillac, but the very idea of giving things to people who are not economically successful.  Even if one buys into the "dependency" idea of welfare reform, the strategy of making people "sink or swim" suggests that Republican leaders are untroubled by the idea that some people will sink.  Moreover, they are untroubled by the idea that the people who will sink include people who have never been given an opportunity to learn how to swim, including children.

Again, the examples could keep coming.  A party leadership that held the entire economy hostage during the debt ceiling debacle last year, and that promised to do everything possible to make President Obama fail (and then tried to deliver on that promise, no matter the consequences), is relentlessly dedicated to enacting policies that will make life harder for the middle class and poor.

Those leaders' commitment to enhancing the prospects of the wealthiest Americans is unquestioned.  Perhaps the purest example of this commitment is the ongoing attack on the estate tax.  A tax that once collected revenues from the estates of the top 2% of decedents, and that now applies only to the top 0.3%, is still the ultimate white whale of the Republican leadership.  This is so even though the evidence shows unambiguously that the estate tax is the least "distorting" of all taxes (even using standard economic criteria).

Moreover, the Party continues to push the idea that the estate tax "breaks up family farms and businesses" despite the absence of any evidence at all -- or even one good, factual example -- that this is true.  It does not matter.  We must, they insist, continue to cut support for poor children, so that we do not tax even estates with more than $10 million in assets.


Again, there are many more examples of the current Republican leaders' anti-social goals that could add to the overall picture.  No totality-of-the-evidence inquiry is ever complete.  Turning to tactics, however, the estate tax example also perfectly captures the "attack on facts" that those leaders have been pushing to absurd extremes.  Who cares if we cannot back up anything we say? they ask.  As the Romney campaign said earlier this year, they refuse to be fact-checked.  Facts are not what they care about.

Just during this campaign season, we have seen this attack on facts strategy in full bloom.  Not only will the Republican leaders refuse to provide evidence to support their assertions, but they will viciously attack anyone who does.  They attacked the clearly-nonpartisan Tax Policy Center because of its willingness to put Romney's tax non-plan to the test.  They attacked the Bureau of Labor Statistics for reporting unemployment statistics that "seemed fishy" because they were favorable to President Obama.  (In the Republican leaders' defense, they probably recalled fondly how former Vice President Cheney succeeded in leaning on some poor security analyst to change a report in the Bush Administration's favor.  If one bureaucrat can be bullied, then surely Obama must have the whole civil service staff of the BLS on his side, right?)  Most recently, they have even been attacking the hyper-nerdy Nate Silver, statistician of The New York Times, for reporting the weighted averages of public opinion polls.

Another favored tactic is, in fact, simply making things up.  Senator John McCain went after President Obama for his "not optimal" phrasing last week, even though McCain had not yet heard the interview in which Obama mirrored that phrase from the question that Jon Stewart had asked.  Obama was clearly using ironic understatement, but McCain (even after learning the facts) simply made up the story that Obama was disparaging the loss of life among American diplomatic personnel in Libya.

Of course, that example at least had some basis in reality.  I am in Toledo this week, so I have seen the new Republican commercials asserting that Chrysler is going to move jobs from the big Jeep plant here to China.  This is so utterly false that even Chrysler has denied it, but the Republicans are twisting Chrysler's denials into another attack ad.

All of this makes Romney's ultimately-successful effort to say that "the normal rules don't apply to me," refusing to release more than two years of tax returns, look like small-time stuff.  He and his fellow Republican leaders have now moved into pure fabrication.

I will end here, only because this post is already too long, and there is no end to the examples.