AVOIDING CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2017 by Ed

I like political science. It's interesting, which is helpful given that I do it for a living. Theories that help us understand the political world change over time out of necessity because the political world changes. Some people find this unsatisfying or use it to argue that the term "science" is not applicable. These people prefer the iron certainty of the hard sciences and their various laws, and that is a valid preference. A social science combining rules, institutions, and human behavior has a different type of appeal and value.

When major events happen in the political world, my social media lights up with a lot of interesting comments from people who know a great deal about the process of legislating, bureaucratic theory, and other specialized topics. I like this a lot. I'm starting to feel, however, that the behavior of the American electorate and the state of the American political system no longer conform to logic or reality enough for any kind of rigorous analysis or application of findings from previous research to be useful. That sounds chicken little-ish, I know. It sounds like an overreaction. It also sounds terrifyingly plausible.

As people who study Congress and congressional elections debate the strategy (and consequences) of the House vote on Thursday, the basic assumption is that voters will respond to decisions made by their Representatives in a way that is predictable. I have doubts about the usefulness of that assumption in modern politics. The post-reality world that a lot of Republican voters inhabit is the culmination of a decades-long process of false equivalence and a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to facts. What does it matter that the bill reduces the number of people who will have health insurance if you can simply say it doesn't and a not-insignificant proportion of voters will accept that and applaud? Does it increase costs? Sure does. But once "This will lower costs!" comes out of the President's mouth, that's Problem Solved for all but the most marginal Republicans in Congress.

Seeing modern American politics as having crossed the Rubicon is no longer a belief confined to permanent pessimists and doom-and-gloomers. There now is a substantial number of us for whom reality and facts simply do not matter, and that turns any attempt to understand or analyze the behavior of political actors on its head. Republicans control the narrative to the point that convincing voters that the economy is better since Trump took office can be accomplished by saying "The economy is better now" and repeating it until it becomes accepted as fact. We have taken a step backward, or maybe sideways, or perhaps through a portal to another dimension. I don't feel like this is temporary, or limited to Trump, or a phenomenon that affects the entire political spectrum evenly (liberals, if anything, insist on Fact Checking everything to death until there is no coherent policy they can be identified with). And I'm dealing with the nagging sense that the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years will be of limited use now.

Imagine if a chemist could combine table salt with mud and declare that the result is 24 karat gold. Or diamonds. Or magical potion. Or anything else he or she felt like calling it. That would render most if not all of the knowledge accumulated by practitioners of chemistry over the millennia useless, would it not?