Conservatives Good, Republican Party Bad
[NOTE: IN RESPONSE TO THE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISMS AND COUNTER-EVIDENCE OFFERED BY READERS BELOW, I RETRACT AND DISAVOW THE POST BELOW. I EXPLAIN WHY HERE.]
A theme of The Righteous Mind and of The Happiness Hypothesis is that wisdom is found on both sides of any longstanding dispute. Morality binds and blinds, so partisans can’t see what the other side is right about. Studying moral psychology has helped me to step out of the “matrix” of my previous liberal team and appreciate the wisdom of social conservatives and libertarians.
But with that said, the last 2 weeks have pushed me to be more explicit about criticizing the Republican Party. First came the extraordinary Washington Post essay by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, titled: “Lets just say it, the Republicans are the problem.” Mann is center-left and Ornstein is center-right, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. They are fed up with the press’s fear of seeming biased, which leads journalists to say that both parties are equally to blame for the dysfunction in Washington. But as long-time and highly respected congress-watchers, they believe that the Republican party since Newt Gingrich’s time is mostly at fault for damaging our governing institutions. Here’s a key quote:
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
The essay comes from their new book: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. I hope this book is read widely. I don’t think there’s a way forward for our country until something happens that leads to a massive reform of the Republican Party. (This is what Mann and Ornstein said when I saw them speak at NYU last week.)
Mann and Ornstein have been friends since graduate school. I think this is an important point. As I say in The Righteous Mind, personal relationships open our hearts and therefore our minds. They allow us to listen to ideas, and I think this makes the team of Mann and Ornstein a national treasure. Their wisdom is likely to be greater than any partisan — or centrist — operating alone.
The second challenge to the “both sides equal” thesis came in Tom Edsall’s powerful NYT piece, Finding the Limits of Empathy. Edsall reviews data from my team at YourMorals.org, including data analysis by Ravi Iyer, showing that liberals and conservatives who DON’T care about politics are NOT different on their level of empathy, but as people get more partisan, the liberals go up on empathy and the conservatives go down — they get more hard-hearted.
Against that background, Edsall analyzes the recent comments by House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, suggesting that it’s not fair that 45% of Americans pay no income tax, and so perhaps it would be fair to “broaden the base” and make all people pay some income tax. (Even though the poor pay around 16% of their income in taxes when you bring in all the regressive taxes that they pay, from sales tax through wage taxes.)
This bothered me. I can understand that the Republicans are committed to fighting all tax increases. Many have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge, which even prevents them from closing tax loopholes. I can understand “no new taxes.” But Cantor (and rep. Pat Tiberi and others) are happy to consider raising some taxes on the poor, or of shifting more of the tax burden onto the poor.
It seems, therefore, that their stance against new taxes may not be a deeply principled stance. It may be self-interest: no new taxes on the rich. Or, as Edsall suggests, it may reflect a kind of moral class warfare in which the rich are seen as the good people — the providers — while the poor are condemned as the bad people — the lazy free riders. If Edsall is right then this would reflect the abandonment of one of the most cherished American ideals, shared by liberals and conservatives alike: equality of opportunity. Republicans traditionally favored a hand up, not a hand out. They may now favor neither, because they think the poor deserve to be poor.
I have been trying so hard to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt, given that I spent my whole adult life as a Democrat and know that I am emotionally biased against the party of George W. Bush. But the Mann and Ornstein book, plus the Edsall article, have changed my mind. I now say explicitly that while I find great wisdom among conservative intellectuals from Edmund Burke through Thomas Sowell, I think the Republican party deserves more of the blame for our current dysfunction. (But I’m open to counter-arguments, if anyone can point to a good counter-argument against Mann and Ornstein.)
I first articulated my new position — Conservatives Good, Republican Party Bad — near the end of my interview with Tavis Smiley, below: