Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Arguing With People Who Simply Do Not Care About Logic

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week, in "Arguing With People Who Simply Do Not Care About Evidence," I described the increasingly frequent spectacle of Republicans using non-facts to justify their policy agendas.  (That piece was also published by Newsweek under the title, "Peddling Fantasy Facts, From Voter Fraud to Benghazi.")  I noted the surprisingly long list of issues on which Republicans, even after their assertions of fact have proven to be simply wrong, nevertheless proceed as if the facts are on their side.

Who cares that there are no examples of women and girls being stalked in public bathrooms by transgender people?  North Carolina passes a "Bathroom Bill" anyway, and other Republican-dominated states are sure to follow.  And that example was not even included in my post last week, where I mentioned the estate tax (no examples of family farms or businesses broken up by the tax) and abortion (no examples of any actual problems that would be remedied by Texas's admitting-privileges requirement) as two other instances in which the number of documented cases of a problem is exactly zero.

Voter fraud does not have zero examples, but the numbers are so minuscule that no one can seriously imagine that Republicans' stated concerns about the issue are anything but pretextual.  Benghazi, the IRS non-scandal scandal, the faked Planned Parenthood and ACORN videos.  It was a depressing list, not just because these are all situations in which many people refuse to believe the clear evidence, but because those people are in positions of political power and use their non-facts to push through damaging laws.

Whenever a commentator calls out one party for dishonesty, the immediate response will surely be heard: "Well, it's not like your side is so perfect!"  Of course, no one ever claims that their side is guiltless.  At least I never do, unless my side really has not done anything wrong in a particular instance.  As much as I favor Democrats, regular readers of my work certainly know that I do not hesitate to call out President Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and anyone else who deserves to be criticized.

One reader of last week's post helpfully reinforced my point by demonstrating how difficult it is to come up with examples of liberals even coming close to making the kind of fact-free arguments that Republicans have perfected.  The examples: a preference for non-GMO foods, belief in homeopathy, and refusal to vaccinate children due to fear of autism (which, the reader noted, is now being picked up by some people on the right).

What makes those examples so helpful in proving my larger point is that only one of them has any serious policy consequences.  That is, although one might disapprove of the policies that people favor because of mistaken views about GMO's or homeopathy, the policy stakes are pretty low.  The false link to autism, however, does have serious policy consequences, and it is important to stop the damage being done to innocent children by celebrity-led panic, which has resulted in renewed outbreaks of preventable diseases.

The good news is that, in fact, such views have been widely condemned.  Even though news reports do suggest that "liberal havens" in upscale areas of California have been the focal points of such panic, every news organization that arguably deserves the label "liberal media" has come down strongly in favor of vaccination.  (This New York Times editorial from 2009 is typical.)  Moreover, even the ultra-hip film crowd howled in protest when their icon Robert De Niro recently tried to use the Tribeca Film Festival to push an irresponsible anti-vaccine film, and De Niro quickly backed down.

More to the point, because these views are far from the mainstream as a political matter, there is nothing tying these views to the Democratic Party.  If there is a Democratic member of Congress who is openly pushing the vaccine-autism lie, I guess I would not be surprised, because one or more people in a group of two hundred-plus politicians will surely includes some lesser lights.  But certainly there is nothing on the agenda of the Democratic leadership in Congress, much less in the White House, that is based on such lies.

The Republicans' attacks on facts, on the other hand, are all in the service of advancing seriously bad policies and seeking political advantage.  Congress spends millions of dollars investigating the Benghazi attacks for the nth time, holds hearings about selling "baby body parts," and so on.  Worse, they actually pass laws that do serious damage at both the federal and state levels.  Laws regarding the environment, scientific research (stem-cell research, for example), reproductive rights, anti-discrimination, voting rights, and on and on have been driven by fact-challenged ideologues on the right.

Again, are there specific examples of Democrats who say or do embarrassing things?  No doubt.  Former Congressman Anthony Weiner was shamed out of office (and failed when he tried to run for mayor), but not for anything that has any ideological significance.  Currently, Democratic leaders are opposing Congressman Alan Grayson's bid for Florida's open Senate seat, both because he is a thorn in their side (calling Senator Harry Reid a liar, for example) and due to some serious ethical questions.

So far, I have been talking about how Republicans have recently become the facts-be-damned party.  What is equally interesting, however, is their willingness to adopt logic-free positions and hold tight, even when their illogic is easily exposed.  Shortly after the death of Justice Scalia, for example, Republicans adopted the bizarre argument that "the people should have a voice" in choosing his replacement.  This was quickly ridiculed, most obviously by pointing out that the people voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and he is the president who thus shall nominate a new justice, according to the Constitution.  Some analysts went deeper, pointing out that the fundamental constitutional design presumes that the people will not have a direct voice in choosing judges and justices.

Even so, we are now weeks down the line, and the best we have seen from Republicans is the now-laughable Senator Orrin Hatch arguing in the pages of The New York Times that because the Senate and the White House are not controlled by the same party -- "a split decision of sorts" -- we should wait until after Obama has left office to fill Scalia's seat.  Hatch could be honest and simply say, "We have the votes to stop this, so you can all just shut up because we have no intention of doing anything."  Instead, he embarrasses himself with this nonsense.  (Among many examples of mocking commentary on Hatch's op-ed, see here, here, and here.)

Again, do the Democrats do anything like this?  Judicial appointments have become highly politicized, and there are plenty of examples of the parties exchanging talking points in response to who currently has the majority in the Senate and whose president is making the nominations.  In that sense, both sides could be rightly accused of adopting logically defensible positions but doing so opportunistically.  But it is difficult to think of any example where nearly every Democrat in the Senate adopted an utterly illogical talking point and stuck with it, no matter what.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Republicans' nonsensical and suicidal views on the debt ceiling, in which they claim that they can pass spending and tax laws that require more borrowing, but then refuse to authorize that borrowing.  Although I have spent much of my time in the past few years criticizing President Obama's response to that insanity, it is important to remind ourselves where it all started.  It does not matter to Republicans that the debt ceiling is not the mechanism by which the national debt can be limited.  Once they have decided to run with an illogical argument, nothing can stop them.


Asher Steinberg said...

I think there are any number of evidence-free liberal arguments about race and a constellation of issues surrounding race, ranging from the micro-level (e.g., arguments about the death of Michael Brown or Sandra Bland) to the macro-level (arguments that racial disparities in any number of things are the product of a racist scheme, implicit bias, some undefined 'structural' racism, housing policies in the 50s, or the like). This is not to be clear, to suggest that all of these arguments are necessarily wrong - some could be right, though I don't think there's much room for debate about Michael Brown - but that, in the form they're often presented, they're evidence-free.

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