Politics & Policy

Illiterate Politics

The Capitol building stands in Washington, D.C., January 9, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)
Progressives have invested a great deal of effort cultivating various occult theories of conservatism.

It is important to try to engage the arguments of those with different political views on their own terms, which requires taking the time to understand those arguments and their intellectual bases. This is one of the reasons (besides reading pleasure) that Jonah Goldberg’s books are so valuable: He probably has done more to illuminate the intellectual origins of progressivism than any progressive writer working today. It is poetic — and it is illustrative of the intellectual flabbiness of contemporary progressivism, with its supra-ideological pretense — that the tendency running through Woodrow Wilson and “war socialism” to the Affordable Care Act and the Green New Deal has been revived as a subject of public interest mainly by Jonah’s books and Glenn Beck’s television programs.

One of the challenges of understanding contemporary progressivism and its ideas is the aforementioned insistence among many progressives that they have no ideas, that they are only empiricists and pragmatists following, as Barack Obama liked to put it, “what works.” This posture is both amplified and distorted by American progressives’ nearly pristine ignorance of what the conservative alternatives are and what the world looks like beyond Chicago. For example, the U.S.-centric parochialism so often attributed to conservatives and their heartland-dwelling political base is at least as prevalent among populist progressives, who talk about “European” health-care as though Europe did not consist of countries with distinct domestic policies that are, on the matter of health care, quite different from one another. National single-payer, for example, exists almost nowhere in Continental Europe, its most notable practitioners being the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan.

Here is something from the comments on my recent column on the “Green New Deal.” Yes, it’s easy to find dumb things in the comments; no, I do not think that pulling one out and highlighting it discredits an entire political view; this is only a useful example.

If you keep calling the people who are in favor of this, “socialists” you are going to be surprised to learn most Republican voters will start to call themselves, “socialists.”

Fox News hype: VENUZUELA! AHHHHHHH!!!!”

Reality: “SWITZERLAND! AHHHHHHHH!!!”

The writer seems to confuse Switzerland with Sweden, as some people do, which is amusing in itself: Sweden is one of the most statist of Europe’s nations (both in its political assumptions and in the sheer size of its public sector), while Switzerland is Europe’s most libertarian country, with a public sector considerably smaller than that of the United States. (Total government spending as a share of GDP is 51 percent in Sweden, 42 percent in the United States, and 34 percent in Switzerland as the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal run the numbers.) While it is the case that I am considerably more pro-European than many conservative writers, many conservatives have found much to admire in the Swiss way of doing things — and more to admire than you might initially expect in the Swedish way of doing things. Here is me making the case for learning from the Swiss health-insurance model in National Review less than a week ago, and here is me in National Review arguing — in a cover story — that Switzerland is the best-governed country in the world. And here is my interview with Johan Norberg on the complicated reality of Swedish government and what conservatives might learn from its successes. One would assume that readers commenting on stories at National Review have some familiarity with the magazine, its writers, and their views — but that obviously is not the case, even setting aside the obvious full-time trolls. Increasingly, it is not even the case for professional and semi-professional writers and commentators. Read the New York Times op-ed pages if you doubt me.

Psephologists have articulated a “median-voter theorem” of majoritarian politics in action, which is of limited applicability; in discourse, our progressive friends have created a kind of similar creature with even less value — call it the “median-Republican theorem” — which holds that it isn’t really necessary to understand, even trivially, what a right-leaning person actually believes; it is enough to respond to what they believe (almost always wrongly) to be the views of the “typical” conservative or Republican, which is in this model an amalgamation of the worst vices of whichever Fox News and talk-radio figures they happen to have heard of. And while there is much that is in need of reform on the Right, this isn’t really a case of “both sides do it,” inasmuch as conservatives, as noted above, have made a much more energetic attempt to understand progressivism on its own terms. Progressives, on the other hand, have invested a great deal of effort cultivating various occult theories of conservatism, that, irrespective of what conservatives actually argue, what they “really believe” is . . . racism, sexism, homophobia, biblioplangistical Christian fundamentalism, etc.

Political discourse as properly understood is being quickly supplanted by a kind of antidiscourse based on memes, ad hominem elevated to the level of a creed, and the exchange of argument for indictment, i.e. “Republicans must be wrong about taxes because Mike Pence’s wife teaches at a school with religious affiliations I don’t like.”

The defining characteristic of our political discourse in 2019 is not that it is polarized, but that it is illiterate.

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