I am convinced that the mess in Washington, which may still lead to another world economic crisis, and the resolution of the latest conflict over the debt ceiling, which probably won’t have any positive impact on the American economy and could make matters worse, is primarily a matter of political culture, not economics. I think specifically that the relationship between truth and politics is the root of the problem. Truth is both necessary and fatal for politics. It must be handled with care and in proper balance, and we are becoming unbalanced, driving the present crisis.
Factual truth is the necessary grounds for a sound politics, and philosophical truth cannot substitute for political debate. Hannah Arendt investigated this in her elegant collection Between Past and Future. I have already reflected on these two sides of the problem in earlier posts. I showed how factual truth, as it provides the ground upon which a sound political life develops, is under attack in the age of environmental know-nothingism and birther controversies, a politics based on what we, at Deliberately Considered, have been calling fictoids. And I expressed deep concern about a new wave of political correctness about the way the magic of the market and highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the constitution have been dogmatically asserted as the (philosophic) truth of real Americanism.
Fine is sympathetic to the Tea Party politicians, specifically the fresh crop of Republican representatives in the House, and he reminds us that they are smarter and more honestly motivated than many of their critics maintain. I tentatively accept this. As a group they have a clear point of view and know the world from their viewpoint. They are likely no dumber, or smarter, than our other public figures. But still I see a fundamental problem, which Fine perhaps inadvertently points out when he observes: “The fresh crop of Republicans has that most dire of all political virtues: sincerity.” I think he means this to be a complement, though the use of the word “dire” indicates he may be ambivalent. I am not. Where Fine sees sincerity, I see true belief and the great dangers of true believers in a democracy.
Unlike other members of the political establishment the new crop of Republicans stand on principle. This time around raising the debt ceiling is a serious business. This summer is not a silly season, as Fine observes. The Tea Party faction will not let the debt ceiling continue at its exponential rate of growth. They keep their promises. This year is different.
But their sincerity and certainty are not political virtues. These self-proclaimed pro-constitution Republicans do not understand the art of compromise, as many have observed. Strange because our founding document was built on compromise, and it has fostered a political system that cannot work without compromise. The Tea Party, though, will not compromise because of their sincere commitment to what they “know” to be true. Compromise between two fallible competing opinions is a virtue. Compromise of a perceived truth is a vice. Thus, the Republicans stand too fast. Bringing the competing parties together becomes almost impossible, and the results are much less likely to be desirable. To the degree to which true believers are defining the agenda of the Grand Old Party, and consequently playing a huge role in the functioning of the American political system, they threaten to make the United States ungovernable.
While Richard Alba in his posts at Deliberately Considered has presented his partisan position (with which I agree), he has also, I think more importantly, defended factual truth.
We stand at a crossroads. There is a principled contest between those who are fighting for a more limited government and those who think that the government plays a key role in the economic and social well-being of the body politic. This is the kind of situation for which democracy, as a very desirable alternative to violent conflict, is made. Yet, for this to happen, there must be some significant agreement about the facts. True belief hides inconvenient facts, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Revealing the facts, as Alba has, becomes an important non partisan contribution. In his first post, he clearly shows that the deficit is a function of both an increase in federal spending and a decrease in federal revenues, and questions the honesty of a Wall Streets editorial on the facts. In his last post, he points to two fundamental facts: the American economy is still by far the strongest in the world and that we face serious problems emanating from persistent economic stagnation and growing social inequality. Alba thinks these facts are more important than the present tempest in a Tea Party cooked pot. But, of course, that is his opinion, a matter of political judgment.
Beyond his opinion, Alba reminds us that it is time that we face facts in American political life. We can’t assert that tax cuts don’t affect deficits. We can’t maintain that a stimulus package killed jobs. We can’t ignore the growing inequality in American society, calling the wealthy “job creators,” and therefore denouncing any move to tax the rich. This is willful Tea Party ignorance, leading to a right-wing American newspeak, crafted for the twenty-first century, apparently designed to mask fundamental economic realities.
The political contest should be about alternative ways of interpreting facts and applying the interpretations. Politics should not be organized around fictions masquerading as facts. The facts should lead not to one clear course of action, but debate among competing ones. I recently came across a piece by Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist at the Washington Post. He shows how, from different perspectives, the facts that Alba highlights should be politically addressed. Alba and Gerson would draw different conclusions from the facts. This difference is what politics should be about.
A fact-based politics about competing political opinions and judgments, not the politically correct of the new right (or the old left), would make for the sort of politics Arendt envisioned, as a matter of principle. In recent days, we have seen how this is a pressing practical matter. The politics based on the fictoids of true believers is a cultural disaster threatening to fundamentally weaken us. Indeed, as Alba exclaimed: “Watch Out!”