I have a simple and depressing model for understanding the corruption of today’s political discourse. Not only does it explain the issue on both sides, it is likely to offend both of them, too.
Start with the Republicans. Early on in Donald Trump’s presidency, he perfected the technique of “the big lie.” Outrageous claims would be put on the table, and the willingness of a fellow Republican to go along with them was a loyalty test. Embracing the Republican mistruths also rendered the Republican politician or conservative intellectual “on the outs” with polite society, and so further loyalty to Trump was cemented in.
The result was a situation in which no one trusted each other or their proclamations. At the same time, most of those people had no other place to go.
When Trump lost the presidential election, this calculus started to change. The new “big lie” is that the election was stolen — but the new enforcers are Trump’s voters more than Trump himself. Hardly any Republican judges, for example, even very conservative ones, supported the claims of electoral chicanery. Federal judges have life tenure and are thus removed from the wrath of the voters. Retiring politicians, such as former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, also felt free to speak out. Senators, with terms of six years rather than two, showed a bit more intellectual freedom than did members of the House.
Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming recently spoke up about Republicans evading the truth about the election, and was summarily removed from her leadership position. At this point fear of Trump himself is a secondary motive; Republicans understand that their party’s base wants Trump-like ideas and methods, with or without the man himself.
The worse-case scenario here is that the mistruths multiply and party elites end up reinforcing the misconceptions of their voters. This downward spiral leaves party elites in an increasingly untenable position, unable to enact policy (pandemic denial, anybody?) or win elections (see, e.g., the Senate races in Georgia). The collateral damage along the way would be high.
The better-case scenario, which I think will come to pass, is that the chain of connected mistruths becomes so long and complicated that it ceases to be potent or memorable. At some point people forget where the entire set of fabrications started, new markers of loyalty are found, and the previous “preference falsification” pops like a bubble. The Republican Party is able to reinvent itself and move on.
What about the Democratic side? The party’s discourse is more often led by intellectuals and policy wonks. Democratic-leaning public intellectuals marshal academic research in favour of their positions far more effectively than Republicans do, as much of the former Republican Party intelligentsia has either quit the party or remains silent.
Given the greater deployment of intellectual argument, smart, educated people are exposed to a more persuasive case for Democratic positions. But there is a danger in this asymmetry: when Democratic ideas are not working or are poorly designed.
Rather than constructing brazen untruths, the Democratic intelligentsia remains largely silent when it is unhappy. President Joe Biden’s recent Buy American plan is similar to protectionist ideas from Trump, but it doesn’t come in for heavy criticism on social media. If asked about it, most Democratic-leaning economists would be (correctly) critical. Yet for them this shortcoming isn’t that big a deal, given what are perceived to be the greater sins of Republicans, including their “big lie” strategy.
The continuing problems of migrant children cut off from their parents at the border receive some criticism — but the noise machine is nothing close to what it was under Trump. The new inflation data seem to indicate that Larry Summers’s criticisms of Biden’s stimulus program were largely correct, yet few if any commentators are apologising to him on Twitter.
In a nutshell: Faced with uncomfortable or inconvenient information, one party’s strategy is lies. The other’s is silence.
Many people increasingly find the Democratic approach more attractive and more persuasive, especially combined with a continuing reaffirmation of other policy claims, and it is easy for them to congratulate themselves for supporting it. And in fact it looks and sounds better than the Republican approach. Counterintuitively, however, it may have fewer error-correcting properties. A certain rigidity and dogmatism may set in, despite the pretense that the very best arguments are being put forward.
Ultimately, neither approach is satisfactory. The key to better mutual understanding is simply not to focus on the shortcomings of those you disagree with. Nor should you keep repeating reasons why your preferred form of rhetoric is superior. Instead, “steel-man” the views of your opponents and subject your own to withering scrutiny. Maybe then we will all get somewhere.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”