Sincere Beliefs, Cruel Policies, and the Current Republican Leadership

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my ongoing series of posts (most recently, yesterday's) shining a spotlight on the sociopathy that has come to dominate Republican policies and tactics, I have tried to be clear that this critique does not apply to all Republican or conservative voters, nor does it even apply to all Republican leaders.  We must bear in mind, however, that this critique does apply to a large part of the party's base, and to a vast majority of its leaders.  The "Let 'em die!" attitudes of the hard-core Tea Partiers are hardly a fringe view among Republicans, after all -- and certainly not among their leaders.

Even so, it is important to try to separate good faith from bad, and muddle-headedness from ill intent.  In that regard, I recently received an email from a Republican friend who protested that many Republican leaders are sincere in their beliefs that the policies they espouse are actually good for the nation.  This is apparently meant to imply that they are not, in fact, sociopaths, but are instead good people whose views on the merits simply differ from mine.  If so, then we can stop the acrimony and simply go back to trying to convince each other that evidence and logic support one set of policies over another, and to try to forge hard-won compromise.

Despite the appeal of this framing of the problem, I believe that it is fundamentally inaccurate.   It is, after all, possible to sincerely believe in something that is profoundly anti-social (in its goals and/or in its tactics).  Plenty of sociopaths believe that what they are doing is for the ultimate good of the world.  A serial murderer might sincerely believe that he is doing God's work, by killing evil people and thus making the world a better place for the deserving good people among us.  It might well be, to take a less extreme example, that the guy who was caught dumping voter registration materials last month really thought that he was doing something good.  People who think that the rules do not apply to them are, by all evidence, often convinced that their ends justify their means.

The inquiry, therefore, is not about whether any particular politician means well.  It is whether he is proposing policies that are actually harmful to people, and engaging in tactics that he would vehemently criticize if engaged in by others.

The "bill of particulars," therefore, must be focused on what a politician does, or tries to do.  Some of the individuals involved are especially easy cases.  As John Dean writes in his Verdict column today, the central figure in the Republican Party's turn toward full-on anti-social tactics and goals is Newt Gingrich.  In some ways, this lets the rest of the party off too easily, because much of the party's modern agenda clearly predated Gingrich's influence, such as Nixon's Watergate tactics and the race-baiting engineered by people like Republican strategist Lee Atwater.  Even so, Gingrich is a central figure in the Republican Party leadership's transition into openly sociopathic behavior.

Along those lines, Bruce Bartlett (who, like Dean, is a former Republican who simply could not stay in a party that had gone so completely insane) wrote last year that Gingrich is the man who pioneered the strategy of attacking (and often eliminating) any source of knowledge (for example, the Congressional Budget Office) that can authoritatively contradict Republican assertions to justify their policies.  As Bartlett points out, that strategy lives on in the current party leadership.  (Recall the Republican attacks on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Research Service, the Tax Policy Center, and even private statisticians during just the last few months.)

Gingrich's ideological and tactical followers included former House Majority Leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, whose fervor equaled Gingrich's, and whose tactics in some ways even exceeded their mentor's.  Today, Gingrich's legacy most obviously includes the Paul Ryan wing of the party, which managed to force Ryan onto the Republican Presidential ticket in 2012, even though it almost surely harmed Romney's chances of winning.  I have written extensively about Ryan's undeserved reputation as a "serious guy," noting that he is simply a middling intellect who gets a pass for being able to throw around some statistics.  Beyond Ryan, however, this group remains by far the most influential bloc in the party, essentially driving all policy discussions in the House -- and, thus, leading the insuperable opposition to any compromise on taxes, spending, the debt ceiling, and so on.

In my previous posts about the sociopathy that has taken over the Republican Party, I have mentioned in particular the cruel policies that Ryan and his cohorts have tried (and often succeeded) in imposing on the country's weakest citizens.  The Tea Partiers' cavalier attitude about literally taking food out of the mouths of children, for example, strikes me as an especially clear example of deranged ideology run amok.

Again, however, we might ask if it is possible to make a decent case for the idea that Ryan et al. are not being deliberately cruel.  Maybe they think that their policies are going to lead to a net decrease in human suffering.  Ryan, in fact, has argued that his policies are designed to end the problem of "dependency" that supposedly flows from having poor people receive their (minimal) subsistence from government payments, rather than from working.  (The existence of the working poor -- whose minimum wages and Earned-Income Tax Credits Ryan would gladly eliminate -- is an inconvenient detail.)  Ending that dependency, he argues, will make poor people and their children better off.

Even if we were looking only at evidence of good faith, however, we cannot simply accept that Ryan has a different view of how policies work, and leave it at that.  If he really believes that trickle-down economics works, then he has to have evidence to support it.  When he not only ignores the evidence against trickle-down, but aggressively works to shoot the messengers bearing that evidence, then he is not merely a misinformed guy who would change his mind if only he knew better.  There are plenty of ideas that sound good in theory.  Willful ignorance and rejection of evidence is not merely a matter of believing in a bad theory.  It is evidence of bad faith.

Setting that aside, however, it is difficult even to understand how Ryan's world would work.  If we take away people's support, he argues, then they will learn to support themselves.  But how will this happen?

In my Tax Policy Seminar last year, a student talked about how people with a need to adapt to adverse situations will quickly develop the means to survive.  (To be clear, this student was not arguing in favor of a Ryan-like position, but was merely describing how such policies were supposed to work.)  For the only time in my teaching career, I was overcome by what can best be called a case of "the giggles."  When I gathered myself, I explained to my students that I had suddenly formed a cartoon picture in my mind of a person who was facing an armed assailant.  As the bullet sped toward his heart, the person thought: "Gee, I really need to adapt to survive.  Better learn how to grow skin that is bullet proof -- really fast!"

The absurdity of that scenario captures the essence of the "innocent" version of the Ryan vision of how to end poor people's supposed dependency on the government.  Even if one strongly believes that people will adapt to changes in incentives -- and to do so in exactly the way that this kind of cramped economic model predicts -- a Republican politician's ability to avoid being thought a sociopath crucially depends on being able to tell a story that allows people to adapt to difficult circumstances in a realistic way.

Even if, for example, one thinks that our inner-city schools are horrible because they are public -- another "plausible on its own assumptions" theory that does not withstand actual evidence-based scrutiny -- then one must still accept the internal logic of the theory, which means that the "dependent" poor really are, in some sad and important ways, "broken."  Maybe they are broken because of supposedly evil liberal do-gooderness gone awry, but broken they are.

As I put it in a recent post (using a different metaphor):  "[T]he 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."  It is one thing to mistakenly force someone into a situation where they die or suffer, but quite another to ignore the death and suffering as one after another victim is "freed of his dependency" on the government, and thrown into the deep end of the pool.

All of this, of course, plays on the field most congenial (or, more accurately, least hostile) to a Republican/conservative worldview, in which one can at least have reasonable differences over economic policy and its effects.  Absolving the Ryan crowd on any other of their anti-social attitudes -- the various types of bigotry involved in their views on gay rights, reproductive rights, civil rights, and (as I emphasized yesterday) voting rights -- cannot even appeal to the idea that "at least they have a defensible underlying theory."  (That is not quite accurate, I suppose.  If there actually were evidence of in-person voting fraud, then they might have a point.  But such evidence does not exist.)

And as far as the economics goes, the Democratic Party is already home to plenty of people who buy a relatively humane version of anti-government economic policy.  President Obama lionizes small business, plays into anti-deficit dogma, offers to do damage to Social Security and Medicare, agrees that taxes should go down (even with many unmet social needs), attacks government employees, and basically has made it clear that his party is open to ideas that were once firmly the intellectual property of "reasonable" people in the other party.

The Republicans who continue to dominate and run their party thus have little left but to engage in ugly tactics and to promote gratuitously harmful policies.  If they are going to move forward and become socially non-destructive, that has to change.  Until it does, there is no reason to pretend that they are not what they really are.