The discussions here and elsewhere on agnotology/epistemic closure have established the existence of a set of mechanisms on the right for propagating ignorance and protecting it against factual refutation. These mechanisms have some obvious benefits, particularly in mobilising resistance against policy innovations, and tribal solidarity against outsiders of all kinds. This is evident, for example, in the attacks on Obama’s health reforms, in the support that can be mobilised for anti-immigrant policies and in the promotion of anti-science views on climate change. Politically, it’s impressive that a party that made such a complete mess of every aspect of policy under Bush can be favored to make big gains at the next elections. At least in the short term, ignorance is strength.
But there are plenty of costs for the right as well. As Conor Friedersdorf observes
since 1995, movement conservatism and its new ally, Fox News, haven’t actually accomplished anything very impressive beyond improving the egos of some right-leaning pundits and making a lot of money.Friedersdorf notes that Bush achieved little beyond an expansion of the Federal role in education and the creation of a new health entitlement.
There’s also been a big cost in terms of the intellectual support structures of the right. In the 1990s they were triumphant, and with some justification. The Soviet Union had collapsed. The ideas driving policy were coming from places like the Federalist Society and the American Enterprise Institute. And while Clinton won a couple of elections, he did so on the basis of capitulation to rightwing ideas, smoothed over by neoliberal(US sense) and Third Way rhetoric. As the agnotology debate has shown, all that is gone. The AEI is a sad joke, and the right as a whole offers nothing more than Trilling’s “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
And as the agnotology/epistemic closure debate has shown, awareness of these facts is increasing. As they become more and more evident, there has been a steady trickle of defections from the intellectual apparatus of the right, some of them quite surprising. With the facts now openly admitted, we can expect to see more.
What does this imply for the left, and particularly for intellectuals on the left? First, as I’ve said, I think it spells an end to any idea that there is value in engaging in discussion with smart people on the other side. It’s impossible to be a smart (and honest) movement conservative, since you have to assent (overtly or tacitly) to all sorts of stupid and dishonest things. Take, for example, a discussion of health care. Whatever arguments someone opposed to Obama’s policy might come up with, if they line up with the Republican position, they are relying on lies about death panels and socialised medicine, repeated by their most prominent leaders, to carry the day. There is simply no point in pretending to engage such a person in honest debate.
On the other hand, we can help to accelerate the collapse of the intellectual right in all sorts of ways. In particular it’s important to probe at the defense mechanisms that let rightwing intellectuals live with the fact that their side is reliant on obvious lies. One is the tu quoque argument I discussed here. Another is the distinction (here from Ross Douthat, but I’ve been presented with it by others in a way that suggests it has wide currency) between intellectuals who should be taken seriously and “entertainers” who can be expected to say whatever boosts their ratings. The intellectuals aren’t implicated in the lies of the entertainers, or obligated to refute them.
The underlying idea is that the role of, say, Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin in the Republican Party is similar to that of Michael Moore or Jon Stewart in the Democratic Party. But this is obviously untrue. Senior Republicans who criticised Limbaugh have been forced into humiliating retractions. And while Levin is obviously unconstrained by truth, he doesn’t present himself as an entertainer and nothing in his vita (chief of staff to Ed Meese, Deputy Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior and so on) suggests he is anything other than a serious political figure.
More importantly, as I’ve argued, the appeal of ignorant tribalism can’t be overcome by centrist or apolitical managerialism. As the long defensive struggle of the last three decades comes to an end, the left needs, once again, to put forward a positive vision. So, that’s it from me on the agnotology debate. I’ll probably be quiet for a bit while I finish my book. Then I plan to return to a series of posts on the politics of hope.
fn1. I’m focusing on the US right, which is the leading producer and exporter of global ignorance, but the same tendencies are present throughout the English speaking world and (with somewhat different characteristics) in the resurgence of the far right in much of Europe.