Substantive Disagreements versus Paranoid Delusions

by Neil H. Buchanan

After the tragic Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia last week, questions arose about whether the railroad's budget cuts contributed to the deadly accident.  This, sadly, quickly became a partisan issue, and with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, they quickly passed yet another round of Amtrak cuts.  Asked at a press conference to comment on the possible connection between funding cuts and the crash, House Speaker John Boehner responded: "Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?!"  What made the question stupid, in Boehner's stated view, was that the train had been going too fast, so there could not possibly be a connection between Amtrak funding and the accident.  If the engineer had slowed the train down, that would have been that.  Problem solved.

There are a lot of ways to describe Boehner's comments.  Illogical.  Evasive.  Ignorant of the evidence.  Maybe even deliberately indifferent to human life.  His argument, after all, implies that there is never any reason to spend money on any safety back-ups in any situation, because if there is already a safe way to do something, then failing to plan is not a plan for failure.  It's just good budgeting.

As much as one can fault Boehner for his smug callousness, however, nothing that he did in that press conference was anything more than trying to argue for his preferred outcome.  It is sad that, given the weakness of his arguments, he digs in his heels rather than adjusting his point of view, but that merely makes him stubborn.  Similarly, conservatives who absolutely insist that the Laffer curve is a logical theory backed by evidence are obviously and completely wrong (and have been for decades), as are the "austerions" who insist on believing that cutting government spending during a recession will improve the economy.

My latest Verdict column is not about any of that.  Instead, I discuss a different kind of wrongness in politics, which was famously captured in a 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."  Hofstadter was describing the Birchers and other emergent crazies who had boosted Barry Goldwater's long-shot presidential candidacy, allowing him to beat his mainstream Republican rivals.  Hofstadter noted that the key element of the paranoid style was not extreme policy views (although those are always part of the mix), or even (as above) insistent efforts to ignore evidence and logic in support of political goals.  It is something much more difficult to confront.

People who exhibit the paranoid style of politics are absolutely convinced that their opponents are the minions of evil, and they are also impervious to evidence that their own views might be wrong.  This is not, moreover, mere wishful thinking, or having an unreasonably high threshold for evidence.  The paranoid people whom Hofstadter described dismiss contrary evidence as proof that the other side is so malevolent and powerful that it is manipulating that evidence, which further supports the idea that the Evil Other must be opposed at all costs.  That enemy is, in Hofstadter's words, "sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving."

This paranoid style today infects not just the inevitable fringe groups on the left and the right, but it has unfortunately taken over much of the discourse in the Republican Party.  A party whose leaders happily stoke fears that President Obama is secretly planning to take away people's guns is no longer trafficking in arguments that can be debated and refuted.  The Supreme Court's current (and quite incorrect) interpretation of the Second Amendment finds an "individual right" by reference to citizens' need to defend their homes, yet some nationally prominent Republican officeholders claim that the right to own guns is based on the need to fight an incipient government takeover of the country.

On a less apocalyptic level, yesterday's Verdict column reflects back on my previous three columns (links provided in yesterday's column), all of which had discussed various ways in which Republicans have vilified and deliberately crippled the ability of the IRS to enforce the tax laws, and I explain how this vilification is not merely a disagreement over policy but is a perfect illustration of the paranoid style.  The IRS is personified as an implacable monster, deliberately making decisions to harms its enemies, incapable of mercy or remorse, requiring constant efforts by good Americans everywhere to thwart its evil plans.

The most perversely interesting aspect of writing yesterday's column, from my standpoint, was reading the prepared testimony of a witness at a Senate committee hearing last month.  (I only had access to a pay-walled version when I published my Verdict piece, but a reader soon sent me a free link:    What was astonishing was the degree of unapologetic paranoia on display in that testimony.  In particular, I quoted this peroration:
Oversight hearings would reveal that King v. Burwell is actually not about health care at all, but rather an example of political corruption and abuse of power at the IRS that goes beyond what any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Lacking any statutory basis for its actions, the IRS first pledged and ultimately spent taxpayer dollars on a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar contribution to the re-election campaigns of members of Congress who enacted, and a president who signed, a law that voters and Congress otherwise would have scrapped as unworkable. Instead, the law remains on the books.
The IRS "pledged and ultimately spent taxpayer dollars on a ... contribution to the re-election campaigns of members of Congress" and the President.  Where does such insanity come from?  And once a person believes that insanity, how could one dissuade him of its truth?  Challenge him to find the multi-billion-dollar contributions over multiple years from the IRS to the relevant politicians?  We will never find that evidence, of course -- not because it never happened, but because the conspirators have covered their tracks too well.

[Note: The witness's claim could be interpreted in a number of different ways, all of which involve one level or another of trafficking in paranoid fantasies.  My comment in the paragraph immediately above deals with the claim in its literal form, which is the only version of the story that could even imaginably be subject to falsification with evidence, whereas the other versions simply amount to, "We know that the IRS corruptly decided to misconstrue the ACA to benefit Democrats and Obama, because the IRS is corrupt and hates Republicans."  Hardly an improvement.]

Similarly, the vilification of the former IRS manager who became associated with the non-scandal scandal is based on the firm belief among those who attack her that she must surely be hiding something.  As Hofstadter put it, what we see is "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" on the part of those who believe that the IRS "targeted" conservatives simply because the IRS itself hates conservatives.

The result is the same here as it is in the areas of climate change and evolution.  Evidence can pile up supporting one conclusion, while evidence must be distorted or ignored to reach the opposite conclusion.  But, in the paranoid mind, that itself is evidence that they were right all along.  If a robot can deny being a robot, then surely the freemasons can be conspiring with Queen Elizabeth and the Illuminati to have the IRS ask additional questions of organizations that ask for tax-exempt status under IRC 501(c)(4).  Open your eyes!