Wisdom or Nonsense? This Is What Supposed Moderates Really Look Like

by Neil H. Buchanan

In his New York Times op-ed column yesterday, Paul Krugman used the term "conventional nonsense" as a pointed twist on John Kenneth Galbraith's famous term "conventional wisdom."  (Actually, that term was not coined by Galbraith, at least according to the hive brain at Wikipedia.)  Even though "conventional wisdom" typically indicates ironic disapproval, Krugman's more explicit formulation fits the times.  American punditry has long been filled with calls for moderation against the extremes supposedly represented by both parties, even though it has become increasingly obvious that this is nonsense.

You know that the standard narrative is vacant when the go-to example of the Democrats' supposed extremism is U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who supported Ron Paul's efforts to "audit the Fed" and who co-sponsors legislation to "appeal to the libertarian streak in the GOP."  Grayson's being personally intemperate and a Democrat apparently automatically proves that the party is run by left-wing extremists.  Conventional wisdom or conventional nonsense?

Beyond those labeling exercises, it is always perversely interesting to see what counts as unchallenged group knowledge in American punditry, especially when those highly contestable bits of folk wisdom work their way into what are supposed to be straight news pieces.

In August 2012, for example, I wrote a Verdict column and a paired Dorf on Law post in which I puzzled over the accepted narrative in which Newt Gingrich is an ideas guy, and Paul Ryan is a serious policy wonk.  As I noted this past Friday, Ryan is still doing everything possible to prove that he is unserious, but it is unlikely at this point that he could do anything to dislodge the conventional nonsense.  In fact, perhaps because he is the only big-name Republican who resisted the pull to enter the 2016 presidential mosh pit, the usual suspects now seem to take Ryan even more seriously.

What about the current field of Republican presidential candidates?  The front page of yesterday's Times actually included this headline: "Jeb Bush’s Cerebral Debate Style Faces a Test: Donald Trump."  Cerebral.  Cerebral?  If Bush III has proved anything in the last few months, it is that he is not at all cerebral.  But perhaps it is only his "style" that is being described as cerebral, maybe?  Which means only that Trump's "I'll have the best policy on that issue ever" style of non-debate has defined down the concept of cerebral to mean appearing to think at all.

In its online Opinion section yesterday, the Times did run a piece asking "When Did Jeb Bush Become the Smarter Brother?"  The answer, apparently, is that Jeb lacks W's back-slapping social skills, so he was viewed by default as being the more serious brother, which then somehow translated into being thought of as the smarter brother.  According to a sympathetic Bush advisor, Jeb "wanted to talk about issues," but he apparently has always been as bad at doing so as he is today, and he is also as inarticulate as both former Bush presidents.  Or, as The Times's writer put it, Jeb has "his brother’s verbal clumsiness without his social skills."  But this did not stop Bush from receiving positive notices as "cerebral," in the news section of the nation's supposedly liberal newspaper.

Conventional wisdom is not, of course, limited to The Times.  At Vox, an article last month described Trump as "the perfect 'moderate'."  The writer was being deliberately provocative, redefining moderation to mean an odd agglomeration of ideas across the ideological spectrum.  Even that article, however, tried to suggest that Trump holds some extreme liberal views as well as his extreme conservative ones, yet none of the examples of his liberal pronouncements (Trump's noting that single-payer health care works in other countries, or his opposition to cuts in Social Security and Medicare, as well as a few others) is even arguably extreme, and certainly nothing like his views on immigration.

Moreover, even within that somewhat successful effort to upset stereotypes, the Vox article offers this nugget: "[Moderates are] different from loyal Democrats and Republicans. Partisans tend to adopt the positions held by their parties, and parties tend to adopt positions that are popular, achievable, and workable. So voters who follow their parties end up pushing ideas in the political mainstream."  Unless the writer still lives in the world as it existed when  Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter faced off for the presidency, it is hard to know what to say about that assertion.  As applied to Republican partisans, even calling it nonsense would be charitable.

What makes conventional nonsense especially insidious, however, is that it seeps even into analyses that are focused on other matters entirely.  Back in 2006, a Times op-ed by Adam Clymer chided relatively inexperienced senators for thinking about running for the presidency.  He mentioned Barack Obama by name.  In one sense, this is fair enough, because even Obama's supporters understood that his political resume was relatively short -- at least, by the standards of the time.  But Clymer could not resist the gravitational pull of the conventional nonsense.  Complaining about the political press's obsession with presidential politics, he wrote: "Instead of singling out potential legislators who may someday save Social Security or raise foreign aid to a substantial level, reporters are on the hunt for future presidents."

Who cares that Social Security did not, and still does not, need saving?  Clymer simply thought for a tenth of a second before coming up with two safe examples of serious policy issues that he could use to support his point.  Well, batting .500 is pretty good in other contexts.  Moreover, that is hardly an isolated or outdated example.  In an article last month analyzing Trump's views on immigration, a Times writer who was trying to make the important point that immigrants do not put a burden on public finances wrote: "But scholarly research has shown that undocumented immigrants are much more reluctant to use public health care than Americans. And billions of dollars of Social Security taxes they have paid for benefits they cannot collect have shored up the dwindling funds of that system."

"Dwindling"?  Again, there was nothing requiring that writer to say anything negative (or positive) about Social Security's finances, because she was merely arguing that immigrants are net contributors to public finances, rather than the leeches that Trump's followers believe them to be.  But drive-by snark about Social Security is as safe as it gets.  Nonsense.

Finally, consider the strange case of the "reformocons."  For those readers who are fortunate enough never to have heard of this media-fed creation, some conservative ideologues are supposedly trying to moderate the views of the current Republican Party.  I have said some positive things about one of the leaders of this group, David Frum, lauding him for his willingness to call out the true craziness on the right.  But it is apparently too easy to forget that "not crazy" is not the same thing as "moderate."

A recent piece by Josh Barro in The Upshot captured some of the remaining craziness on the reformocon right.  In particular, he quoted Frum as saying that Republicans could use Trump in the way that Richard Nixon used George Wallace's attempt to induce hysteria about crime in 1968: "Crime was rising fast, and it was not an issue that respectable politicians wanted to talk about. The result was that Richard Nixon stole [Wallace's] issue and deracialized it."  Barro correctly calls Frum on that preposterous claim.

And in what is surely the most unintentionally revealing moment of conservatives' true values, Barro recounts the executive editor of National Review as saying that "Mr. Trump’s ability to lead the polls while attacking Republicans for wanting to cut entitlement programs showed that conservative voters are open to 'government programs that help the right people.'"  Ah yes, the right people.  That is not moderation, but it certainly clarifies matters.