How Can Democrats Respond to Republicans' Embrace of the Dark Ages?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Through no particular grand plan, I found myself taking three trips to Europe this year, spending almost two of the last three months in various countries in Old Europe.  In addition, I also took my first true vacation from blogging (and writing in general) ever, from late June until yesterday.  Inevitably, I found myself returning with a new perspective on U.S. political debates.  As yesterday's Verdict column and Dorf on Law post indicate, I have lately been thinking about our political dysfunction in the context of the centuries-long arc of the Enlightenment and its detractors.

Whatever value that longer perspective might bring to the table still leaves us with a question that was implied by the end of yesterday's post.  I said that "[o]ne cannot respond with reason to those who have explicitly abandoned reason."  As a commenter on that post asked: What then should Democrats (and other sane people) do, given that Republicans are now completely unhinged?

I do not have a fully satisfactory answer, but I have been thinking about this broad question, too, for some time.  Here, I will simply describe why I am skeptical of all of the possible answers, while tentatively endorsing one promising approach.  It is certainly too soon to say that nothing will work, but our current situation does suggest how precarious is the continuation of Enlightenment values in a world where the current Republican Party holds any power at all.

In my Verdict column, I argued that the Democrats' preferred strategy -- responding to stupid non-arguments with technocratic, cost-benefit answers (which has long been my preferred response, too) -- is ultimately not a good strategy.  More broadly, I think that this year's emergence of the Republicans' full-on craziness has exposed the long-simmering problem of Democrats having embraced what people outside this country (and many US scholars) refer to as neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is the label for the more humane version of conservative, market-obsessed corporate capitalism that Democrats have broadly embraced even as far back as FDR's presidency (but especially beginning with the Reagan era).  There are hugely important differences between the New Democrats -- the Clinton- and Obama-styled idolators of balanced budgets and "economic efficiency" -- and less centrist Democrats, but those differences are often more a matter of degree than kind.  And there is a very good reason that Democrats generally have taken this tack: liberal policies actually pass the cost-benefit test, over and over again, and are clearly superior to conservative policies, even on conservatives' own terms.  This is why so many people have argued that FDR saved capitalism from itself (an argument that I revived in a Dorf on Law post earlier this year.)

As a style of argument, beating one's opponent on his own terms is not only clever, it is extremely satisfying.  Moreover, it relieves us of the necessity of fighting over the terms of the debate.  Unfortunately, the terms of debate within which neoliberalism operates are, at a deep level, nearly as hostile to the values of the Enlightenment as are the current crop of Republicans' more crudely stated attacks on knowledge and reason.

Consider mass education.  It is tempting and easy to argue that educating as many people as possible is good for the economy, because failing to educate people reduces their productivity, leaving them unqualified to perform higher-paying jobs, and making it more likely that they will require public assistance.  I have written entire scholarly articles based on this premise (see here, for example), but I am hardly the only person to have noticed that the bumper sticker, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance," captures an important truth.

Moreover, one would hardly want to be explicitly in favor of long-term waste.  Wrapping oneself in the comfortable (though hardly warm) embrace of technocratic cost-benefit justification is a reasonable prophylactic against charges of being a bleeding heart, unrealistic dreamer (at best).

Even so, as soon as we start describing education in neoliberal terms, we accept the possibility that the facts on the ground will fail to justify universal education.  We not only find even liberal politicians embracing obviously bad policies like No Child Left Behind, and we not only countenance the idea that "school choice" is a reasonable way to allow the wonders of the market to deal with failing schools (leaving neighborhoods without the cohesion provided by good public schools, where all children can be educated), but we at least tacitly consider the possibility of cutting loose some people who are "not worth it" in a cost-benefit calculation.

This reasoning also infects (less obviously) discussions over universal voting.  If the question is whether the costs of universal voting are worth the benefits, then we can end up asking whether voter suppression laws might really be justified when other ways to prevent voter fraud (which is almost entirely nonexistent, but I digress) do not pass the cost-benefit test.

In short, the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism has simply taken them away from firmly defending categorical values that deserve to be defended.  Republicans are willing to tank the entire global economy, it seems, to defend their belief that even Republican-style health care reform should not become a functioning law.  Democrats need to defend the values of the Enlightenment against the forces of the Dark Ages because Enlightenment values are better, not because they are more profitable.

In any case, as I argued yesterday, Democrats have a much better reason to abandon neoliberal arguments: Republicans are no longer engaging with them.  It was one thing when both parties were slowly abandoning the fundamental values of the Age of Reason, through incremental compromises based on (incomplete) cost-benefit analyses (such as Clinton's welfare reform law), but now Democrats are showing up to talk like wonks, and the best Republicans will do is send Rep. Paul Ryan to make a mockery of wonk talk.

What else can Democrats do?  Bruce Bartlett suggested to me off-blog that the Democrats' best approach is to mock and ridicule the Republicans.  I feel great affinity for that approach, because it strips the Republicans of the dignity of being treated as if their arguments merit comment.  When people are not being reasonable, there is no reasoning with them.

I am skeptical, however, that this will work.  As I noted during the 2012 election debates, both Romney and Ryan took bald-faced lying to a new level, in a way that put the Democrats in a strange bind.  Calling someone a liar used to be a strong statement in American politics.  But when an entire presidential campaign is based on a series of lies, the potency of calling liars on their lies is severely diminished.  Moreover, it gives the liars the opportunity to act as if their feelings are hurt by the accusation, garnering sympathy from a public that only hears a big meanie calling some sincere-looking man a liar.

This problem predates the Romney/Ryan campaign.  Newt Gingrich, who did so much to degrade American political life (beginning in the House of Representatives, but going far beyond), gave Republicans the strategy of using extreme words -- "pathetic," "hateful," "treacherous," and so on -- to describe everything the Democrats did.  The result has been that when Democrats use those words in contexts where they actually fit, it merely sounds like the same old politics.  And as I and others have argued many times, Republicans benefit when the public tunes out.

If there is not a third option -- something other than engaging intellectually with those who insist on being disengaged, or ridiculing their disengagement -- then we are stuck choosing among those two diminished possibilities.  Certainly, there is no reason to embrace only one option for all occasions.  I do, however, think that the better third option (not a "third way," which is the political brand for the worst kind of me-too Clintonian Republicanism) is simply to make affirmative arguments for Enlightenment values, in positive terms that capture the importance of the thinking that brought us out of the Dark Ages.

The response to the Roberts Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act is a good start.  Although there must inevitably be technocratic aspects to the ground battles to come (including Eric Holder's very welcome announcement yesterday that the Justice Department will pursue action against Texas's recent, extreme efforts at minority disenfranchisement), the Democrats have done a very good job of making this debate about universal suffrage, not about cost-benefit analyses.

Again, I am unsatisfied with all of the available responses to Republicans' increased craziness.  I will surely return to these questions in future posts, but I will stop here for now.