Politics & Policy

Their Non-Reality Reality

Understanding the Democrats.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a part II. Part I here.

The most popular political guru among Democrats today is a guy named George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley. Marc Cooper, a contributing editor to The Nation, describes Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, as a “feel-good self-help book for a stratum of despairing liberals who just can’t believe how their commonsense message has been misunderstood by the eternally deceived masses.”

Apparently this stratum includes Howard Dean, the new head of the Democratic party, who calls Lakoff “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement.” His book was distributed to hundreds of Democratic congressmen.

Lakoff’s argument boils down to this: Facts do not matter. “People think in frames,” he writes. “If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.”

By frames, he means ideological blinders or emotional categories or familial roles. Or something. Whatever they are, Lakoff believes that Democrats need to change their language to appeal by exploiting “frames,” not dealing with facts. Much of his analysis stems from his belief that pretty much all conservatives act in bad faith. Conservatives, for example, “are not really pro-life.” No, conservatives see things through the “strict father” frame. Hence, “Pregnant teenagers have violated the commandments of the strict father. Career women challenge the power and authority of the strict father,” and therefore, he writes, “Both should be punished by bearing the child.”

Liberals can succeed not by changing their views, but by changing their words. This should be obvious, since reality doesn’t really matter anyway. All Democrats have to do is successfully change the name for trial lawyers to “public-protection attorneys” and re-label “environmental protection,” as an effort to maintain “poison-free communities.”


Meanwhile, Democrats have taken the position that Social Security needs no reform whatsoever. Now, before the good-government liberal types scream at me that I’m being unfair, let me add that I understand this is mostly a tactical posture on the Democrats’ part. But in politics, tactics and principles are often confused for each other and for good reason. And that Democrats are acting like they think Social Security is just plain hunky-dory. That’s not my interpretation but James Carville’s, Stanley Greenberg’s, and Harold Ickes’s.

No remotely serious observer of reality believes that Social Security is just fine.

But what concerns liberals more is the supposedly outrageous contention that FDR might have supported private accounts. A quote from FDR offered by Brit Hume and others suggested that this might be the case, and the bloggers as well as Ellen Goodman, Jonathan Alter, and countless others went batty at the very idea.

Now, it’s fair game to object to what you consider misleading quotations read out of context. But the passion of these objections–even after you discount the rabid and irrational Brit Hume hatred–reveals how stuck in the past many liberals are. Conservatives were wrong about the quote, but they were right for thinking respect for FDR’s spirit is what motivates many liberals. But the thing is, who cares if FDR would have supported privatization or not? FDR was a brilliant politician, but very few historians believe he was a particularly brilliant policy maven. He liked to play with his stamp collection in his free time, not master actuarial arcana. The only thing we know for sure that FDR really favored was “bold experimentation,” which is the one thing these same Democrats adamantly oppose.

Meanwhile, Teresa Heinz Kerry thinks the election was “hacked.” Expanding on that theme, Juliet Schor of Boston College wrote in The Nation that Kerry lost the election because of strategic “software breakdowns” and selectively missing voting machines in Democratic precincts. “No amount of cultural repositioning will cure this problem,” she writes and which Cooper, in his excellent Atlantic essay, translates as liberals saying there’s “no need for us to change. The blame is all external.”

Another writer for the same issue of The Nation, a sociologist from NYU argues that liberals can only choose between living “two nightmares.” Nightmare #1: Sixty million Americans “knowingly” ratified Bush’s “right-wing ideology.” Or, nightmare #2: “We have just witnessed a second successive nonviolent coup d’état–a massive voter fraud that produced, among other anomalies, a gap between exit polls and paperless electronic voting tallies.” Oh, and this guy also thinks we shouldn’t discount the possibility we’re in analogous situation to 1930s Germany.

In (slightly) swampier waters, we hear that Jeff Gannon is the second gunman from every painful reality the Left has had a hard time accepting, including the Florida recount and Dan Rather’s downfall. One fellow took the time to pretend he was Gannon in order to send me an e-mail from Annoy.com. When you go to the site, you find a picture of Karl Rove’s head on a buff nude dude’s body with some even more pornographic text about the perfidy of various right-wing “whores.”


And at organs that pride themselves on their immunity to feverish impulses, we find instead a haughtiness not often seen outside 17th-century Versailles. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic imagines a hypothetical in which God descends to Earth for the purpose of “settling, once and for all, our disputes over economic policy.” If the Almighty declared conservative empirical claims were correct, the liberals, he writes, would respond:

[no] doubt by rethinking and abandoning nearly all their long-held positions. Liberalism, after all, claims to produce certain outcomes: more prosperity and security, especially for the poor and middle classes; a cleaner environment; safer foods and drugs; and so on. If it were proved beyond a doubt that liberal policies fail to produce those outcomes–or even, as conservatives often claim, that such policies hurt their intended beneficiaries–then their rationale would disappear.

But how would conservatives react if God affirmed liberal economic precepts?

Well, most of us would tell the Big Guy Upstairs to butt out, we know what we’re talking about and He doesn’t. Why, because “Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it,” since liberals are–get this–”fact finders.”

Forgetting all of the profound theological and psychological insults packed into this bizarre hypothetical, what on earth is Chait talking about? He goes on and on about how conservative economists are lacking in respect for empirical data and fact-finding while liberals are the Joe Fridays of economics. I worked in and around the American Enterprise Institute for quite a while. AEI remains the central hive of the sorts of economists Chait despises. I can tell you here and now that most of these guys spent their time talking endlessly about data, “random walks” in the data, the need for more data, the problems with data, and the reliability of that data. You’d think in the comfort of AEI, a few would have dropped the act and I would have heard a few of them say, “Who cares what the data says?” You’d think fewer free-market economists would receive Nobel Prizes since they don’t hand such things out for ideological polemic writing.

Chait’s theory boils down to a very shabby accusation of bad faith. When conservatives are right about reality, it’s by accident. It’s not that “conservatives don’t believe their own empirical arguments,” Chait concedes. And it’s not “that ideologically driven thinking can’t lead to empirically sound outcomes. In many cases–conservative opposition to tariffs, price controls, and farm subsidies–it does.” But the simple fact is that when it comes to conservatives, “empirical reasoning simply does not drive their thinking. What appears to be conservative economic reasoning is actually a kind of backward reasoning. It begins with the conclusion and marches back through the premises.”

“Liberalism,” Chait lectures, “is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy–more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition–than conservatism.”

And this is true not just of economics but everything. For example, Clinton was a great Pragmatist who “recognized the failure of welfare, previously a cherished liberal goal, to accomplish its stated purpose, and he enacted a sweeping overhaul.”

And here we can see the great flaw in Chait’s wishful thinking about liberal realism. Clinton agreed to welfare reform–over the objections of most liberals, including his own wife–because the Republicans forced him to and he’d have lost the 1996 election if he didn’t. That was the beginning and the ending of Bill Clinton’s fact-finding. The New York Times’s editorial page–a better representative of elite liberalism’s worldview than The New Republic, alas–called welfare reform “atrocious” and an outrage. “This is not reform, it is punishment” they declared.

Last summer, the Times reported that welfare reform was one of the “acclaimed successes of the past decade” and its renewal is a “no-brainer.” Chait would no doubt salute the newspaper for its empiricism. But how would we have known they were empiricists in 1996? Real empiricists express skepticism toward their own predictions, not moral outrage and–often–charges of racism at those who doubt them.

Indeed, that’s the story writ small of liberalism’s alleged acceptance of “new realities.” It’s not that liberals have maturely adapted to new data, it’s that they’ve been proven wrong so often–either empirically or at the polls–that they’ve had to change, and each time they do it, it’s not with the empiricist’s joy of learning new things, it’s with grumbling through gnashed teeth and amidst much caterwauling about liberal “sellouts” and political opportunism. For more than three decades, liberals swore there was no evidence that there was anything wrong with welfare reform until even the public knew they were lying.

Chait’s version of liberals cheerfully accepting that they were wrong after decades of white-knuckled denial reminds me of that scene from Fletch where Chevy Chase is chatting up the doctor about an alleged mutual friend who died:

Doctor: You know, it’s a shame about Ed.

Fletch: Oh, it was. Yeah, it was really a shame. To go so suddenly like that.

Doctor: He was dying for years.

Fletch: Sure, but… the end was very…very sudden.

Doctor: He was in intensive care for eight weeks.

Fletch: Yeah, but I mean the very end, when he died. That was extremely sudden.

Lastly there’s Chait’s solipsism. His version of reality cannot explain liberals who disagree with him. Are liberals who oppose free trade simply morons who can’t do the math? Was Hillary Clinton less of a liberal because she opposed welfare reform? What about Marian Wright Edelman? Are the Europeans who’ve refused to recognize that the economic rot of their welfare states really conservatives because they can’t face facts? Are liberals in America who envy Europe’s economic model incapable of recognizing its flaws? How does Chait explain anybody to his left–either ideologically or simply in the next office over from him–who disagrees with him? If liberals always go where the facts take them–you in the back, stop laughing–how is it that liberals ever disagree? He might say that only conservatives operate in ideologically blinkered bad faith and God-defying false-consciousness. But I think the real answer is that in Chait’s formulation the facts can only be what he finds them to be. And one senses that he really thinks God should come down and tell everyone that’s the case.

Now, I like Chait and I think he’s a smart guy. But I can only read all of this as the sort of defensive crouch one finds among the smarter campus activists who decide to hide underneath the cafeteria table while the sophomoric would-be revolutionaries tear the place apart. One can almost see Chait, Rain Man-like in a fetal position muttering, “The facts are on my side, the facts are on my side.”

On almost every significant area of public policy the Democrats are atrophied, rusty, and calcified. They’re dependent upon old (condescending) notions about blacks, the patronage of teacher’s unions which care very little for the facts, and feminists who define liberation almost exclusively as the freedom to abort pregnancies despite all of the new, inconvenient facts science is bringing to bear. Liberals are not the “reality-based community,” they are the status-quo based community. They wish to stand athwart history yelling “Stop”–in some rare cases, even when history is advancing liberalism in tyrannical lands. The Buckleyite formulation of standing athwart history yelling “Stop” was aimed at a world where the rise of Communism abroad and soft-liberalism at home were seen as linked trends. Today, liberals yell “Stop” almost entirely because they don’t enjoy being in the backseat. If they cannot drive, no one can.

And–where was I going with this again? Oh yeah–I think this petulance explains the liberal obsession with the phrase “reality-based community.” It’s a form of transference or projection or whatever they call it. We can’t stand the new reality, so we’re going to insist that those who recognize it are the ones in denial.


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