If you followed much of the impeachment debate on the House floor yesterday, you will have heard many members invoke the judgment of history. On both sides of the aisle, our elected representatives appear to believe history will vindicate them. Who is right?
The parties don’t really dispute the facts surrounding Donald Trump’s impeachment. Rather, they differ in their interpretation of those facts. And since interpretation is a matter of filtering events through a particular worldview, the question of who will be vindicated by history can be restated as a question about who has a more reliable worldview, a worldview more likely to hold up to the rigors of analysis and debate in a free society. (Note that if America descends into an Orwellian police state, all bets are obviously off).
During my lifetime, I have witnessed the Republican party grow more and more extreme in order to cater to a base that, fed a constant diet of Fox News and right wing talk radio, continues to retreat ever further into a silo of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Here are some highlights from the last thirty-some years:
- The Republican party has denied the fact of evolution and attempted to have religion taught in public schools over the objections of the entire scientific community.
- Again over the objections of the scientific community, Republicans have denied the fact of climate change and have probably made it impossible for us to effectively limit global temperature rise to manageable levels.
- They have passed tax cut after tax cut for wealthy individuals based on the argument that it will actually generate revenue, despite a complete absence of evidence for this assertion.
- They have passed regulations aimed at forcing the closure of abortion clinics on the grounds of promoting “women’s health,” despite objections from the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that these regulations will do nothing to improve women’s health, but may actually do harm.
- On the pretense of preventing voter fraud, a vanishingly rare occurrence, they have passed laws that have removed thousands of people from the voter rolls, often with insufficient notice. They have imposed onerous identification requirements on likely Democratic voters, but not on their own. And they have opposed race-based affirmative action on the grounds of promoting “color blindness,” while intentionally drawing legislative districts to dilute the voting power of racial minorities.
I could go on, but you get the point. If we are asking ourselves, whose worldview is more divorced from objective reality, and therefore who is less likely to objectively assess the judgment of history, then clearly the answer is the Republican party and its base.
But it helps to ask how we got to this point? Shouldn’t the free marketplace of ideas and regular elections act as a check on such a radical divergence of worldviews? The question itself presupposes that the point of free discourse is to reach truth, and that elections actually are a check on bad policies. Neither is necessarily true.
In their book The Enigma of Reason, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier argue that in fact our capacity to reason and argue evolved to persuade others to act in accordance with our wishes, and not to reach truth. Those goals sometimes coincide when the community in question — the scientific community, for example — is devoted to truth as an overarching, superseding goal. But communities can be organized around many different values and interests, and large nation-states are so populous and so diverse that they can hardly be said to be committed to any coherent set of values at all. Even founding texts like the Constitution will mean very different things to different people. Thus, free debate in such a society is as likely to be geared toward cementing tribal coalitions as it is to the search for objective fact.
Still, the right political structures should make it easier for more defensible worldviews to gain greater traction. But this assumes real political competition, and that is something that America sorely lacks. Thanks to gerrymandering, only about ten percent of House districts are actually competitive. Republicans especially have benefited from the practice, to the point where they can win ten out of 13 seats in North Carolina’s House delegation with barely a majority of the votes cast in that state. When you add in the structural advantages of a Senate that awards the same representation to Wyoming’s 577,000 people as it does to California’s 39 million, and an Electoral College that gives greater weight to less populous states, it’s clear that Republicans don’t actually have to tailor their beliefs or policies to the evidence either of scholarship or voter preference.
An overarching narrative on the right these days is one of victimhood at the hands of elites in government, the media, and academia. But to the extent that Republicans and conservative voters are victims of anything, they are victims of their own success. Thanks to their exploitation and expansion of these structural advantages, they are permitted the kind of epistemic closure that would render political parties in most other countries uncompetitive. According to a study highlighted by the New York Times in June, the platform of the Democratic party is moderately left of center compared to other developed democracies, while that of the Republican party is far to the right, having more in common with small, extremist parties like France’s National Front or Germany’s Alternative for Germany than it does with Britain’s Conservatives.
Thanks to this asymmetry, Republicans’ complaints about a “partisan” impeachment process ring hollow. Whenever anyone ventures to the extreme of any party or movement, they essentially identify the well-being of that movement with all other transcendent values like truth or justice. Republicans and incapable of distinguishing bad faith partisanship from good faith adherence to the law and constitution because for them there is no distinction. Partisan loyalty coincides completely (and awfully conveniently) with all other transcendent values.
So to return to the question I asked at the outset, today’s Republican party cannot objectively assess the judgment of future historians because it cannot objectively assess the present, and it cannot objectively assess the present because structural features of our government have allowed its members and most loyal supporters to maintain a fictional worldview, unassailable by evidence and unaccountable to the kind of rigorous competition that, in the rest of the free world, relegates similarly extreme parties to the political wilderness.