Democracy

Truth and Politics and The Crisis in Washington

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.

The posts by Gary Alan Fine and Richard Alba confirm my concerns.

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.

The more things change, the more they stay the same? (Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?) 1885 political cartoon with caption "To begin with, 'I'll paint the town red'"

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!”

  • Michael Corey

    FactCheck.org (a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania) summed up the current situation in a piece dated July 15, 2011, “Does Washington have a spending problem or an income problem? (http://factcheck.org/2011/07/fiscal-factcheck/). In their analysis in a report authored by Brooks Johnson (Director of FactCheck.org), the following statement was made, “We won’t attempt to assign blame to one party or the other for the deficits. There is plenty of blame to go around, some of which rests with an American public that won’t accept cuts in the largest categories of public spending, and also resists tax increases on anybody but “the rich.” The piece is full of factual information and links to many useful documents.

    The facts provided are consistent with analyses offered by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) in “The Federal Government’s Long-Term Fiscal Outlook” dated January 2010 update (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10468sp.pdf) and 2011 update (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11451sp.pdf) ; and its “Citizen’s Guide to the 2010 Financial Report of the United States Government” (http://www.gao.gov/financial/fy2010/10guide.pdf). All of these demonstrate that our current policies are unsustainable in the long run, and there is a tremendous cost to delaying dealing with them sooner than later. This is consistent with the financial downgrade warnings of S&P and Moody’s Ratings services.

    What these reports show what has happened after the horses have been left out of the barn, and what the trajectories are for the future. The warning signs had already posted decades ago as the United States for a variety of reasons has drifted away from primary industries towards a consumption driven service economy. Along with it, the life changes of most Americans have also fallen. There are many reasons for this. One of the most commonly cited is the hourly compensation costs for the rest of the World versus China. In 2009, hourly compensation costs in manufacturing for the United States were $33.53. Guesstimates for China in 2008 were about $1.36. These are based on studies done by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ichcc.pdf). There are many other reasons including tremendous barriers for obtaining governmental approvals for new projects in the United States.

    In my view, if we want to deal with the budgetary issues, then it will be necessary to deal with finding ways to rebuild the U. S. economy by shifting more emphasis to production. This is where substantial value can be created and value creation is the basis for redistribution.

  • Gary Alan Fine

    My use of “dire sincerely” is not to be a compliment, but to reflect deep ambivalence. The question is how we can avoid the shoals of careerist cynicism and self-confident assurance. True belief is only a danger in a democracy when it is mixed with an unwillingness to accept incremental change. And we see today and the last few weeks that “tea party” favorites in Congress are in two minds on the value of what they believe to be incremental change. Paul Ryan, Allen West, and Eric Cantor are yes votes. Ron Paul, Joe Walsh, and Tim Scott are no’s. Some tea parties invite Mad Hatters, others not.

  • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I agree with Michael’s conclusions, not sure about what precedes it. I know that controlling the long term debt is a necessity. I also think that an important way that this will be achieved is with economic growth that benefits not only the rich, but also working people. Perhaps shifting to production will provide for this. But the present spending cuts make me feel quite uneasy. I worry that Paul Krugman (linked in the post) may be right on this. The cuts may foster slower economic growth or even a new recession, which will lead to larger deficits. It is quite possible that this deal that claims to reduce the deficit may increase it.

    I that that Gary might be ambivalent about Tea Party sincerity. Good to have that clarified. But we don’t only disagree in our political judgments. We have a significant theoretical difference as well. I am convinced by my teacher (metaphorically speaking), Hannah Arendt. I think philosophic truth (that of libertarianism for example) is an enemy of politics. Politics has to be about opinion. On this I am also with Madison. On this I am more informed by the master conservative Edmund Burke than present day conservatives are. Whether incremental or revolutionary, democracy is endangered when partisans believe they have the truth and their opponents don’t. In this way, opponents become enemies, something that is quite evident in our present political situation. In the second half of the 20th century, this danger came from the left. In the US today, it comes from the right.

  • Scott

    Shifting to an economy based on production, a real economy that is, is hindered by global competition. Corporations are not going to easily switch production from China to the United States, and workers in the US do not fancy working for $1.36 an hour. If you break unions though, and cut social programs to the point where you create an unemployed working class desperate enough to work for a wage low enough to entice corporations to move production back to the United States, then you might see production increase substantially. My hunch is that any transition, would also require government spending and tax credits to spurn it. On the campaign trial in 2008, Obama had talked about giving tax credits to job creators, real job creators that is. As far as I know nothing became of it. It was probably condemned as “protectionism” by some WTO members.

    However, economic growth however is a key part of reducing the deficit. For the full impact of it to be felt, it would need to be equitable and not disproportionately benefit the top income brackets. This would not be a problem if more businesses had a sense of social responsibility. That is currently in short supply, so a change in corporate culture would seem to also be a part of the solution, maybe a big part.

  • Rafael

    I wonder if these “truth-based” impasses in politics are a reflection of a larger “truth-based” disposition emerging in the U.S. As I pointed out in a previous post, 51% of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form, and representative democracy is likely to represent these and other such failures of the educational system. I wonder, in other words, if the political culture is changing or if culture as such is changing.

  • Arjen Berghouwer

    I doubt whether the crisis of US politics can best be seen in terms of a “new crop of true believers” that do not understand the “art of compromise”. While it is true that a lack of attention to factual truths is obstructing collective decision making, it consists more of a symptom than the root problem. When considering political culture, the most revealing is the significant downward trend of citizen trust in politics – in the functioning of government, political parties, etc. – over the last decades. In essence, US citizens have ceased to believe that politicians by and large represent them and/or are interested in governing to the benefit of society as a whole.

    It is this situation – in which people perceive that politics is functioning mainly in function of powerful side interests – that polarization is thriving. Citizen frustration with politics makes them receptive to protest votes and ever more uncompromising positions. While Tea Party members might be especially uncompromising, in effect all politicians have not been able to escape popular tensions demanding to resist business-as-usual compromises.

    The sincerity of ‘true believers’ only plays a small part in this. Even if one concedes that Tea Party supporters act on sincere beliefs, their ultimate influence is a function of the backing of self-interested actors (amongst them Fox News and large financial donations of PACs) and a disengaged citizenry willing to take a more radical stand. Hence, reasonable compromise is not so much prevented by philosophical truths, but rather by a change in the basic rules guiding the political game. In theory, if the root problem were merely to consist of a new crop of politicians lacking in the art of compromise, the crisis in governability would be easily resolved with the next elections. However, the usual recipes do not seem to apply anymore. Normally considered a virtue, compromise is now seen as the outcome of a skewed process to the benefit of special interest groups.

    The Minister of Interior Affairs in The Netherlands (my native country) recently announced his wish to enact legislation to make it more difficult for journalists to obtain inside information (minutes of formal meetings, etc.) on political deals – compromises if you wish. He compared the political decision making process with making sausages, and stated that nobody actually would like to have a look inside the factories to see how sausages are made. His position was that politics is a dirty and difficult process, but it is the only way to make gradual progress. Nevertheless, this position negates that politics has become an ever more unequal place and that citizens tired of politics-as-usual first of all demand political reforms to make public decision making less dirty. Without such reforms, protest votes for anti-establishment parties will unfortunately keep politics from meeting governability requirements for the time being – defying factual truths.

  • Scott

    We must certainly look at several factors if we are to understand the debt debt. The Tea Party is certainly a part of it, and they were around before they caught the attention of Fox News. I think they are actually less influenced by their corporate backers than they are indeed true believers in the idea that small government means more freedom. The fact that they tend to disregard the facts, is certainly a factor, but is proportional to their will to belief. One must also look at the influence of Grover Norquist, who essentially got the entire Republican party to sign a pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances, facts be damned. If that doesn’t undermine the art to compromise, I’m not sure what does. The ironic thing is that it is a case in point of how special interests undermine to democratic process, a factor which no doubt leads to distrust in politics, and a desire to see a dramatic shift in how politics is done. So I think we have a mix of true believers and those who are willfully ignorant. The connection between beliefs and material interests certainly needs to be taken into consideration. So does the belief that there are some principles which are so sacred that they must never be compromised. In a democracy, such a stance can cause deadlock, especially when there are other groups with contrary sacred principles. What then is the alternative to compromise? Civil war?