Friday, May 20, 2022

The Brooks of Wrath

David Brooks getting to know his deplorables. Image by Driftglass.


David F. Brooks, fan of data-heavy perspectives on policy issues, taking exception to a data-heavy perspective on a politics issue ("How Democrats Can Win the Morality Wars"):

I’m a fan of FiveThirtyEight, a website that looks at policy issues from a data-heavy perspective, but everyone publishes a clunker once in a while. In February, FiveThirtyEight ran a piece called “ Why Democrats Keep Losing Culture Wars.” The core assertion was that Republicans prevail because a lot of Americans are ignorant about issues like abortion and school curriculum, and they believe the lies the right feeds them. The essay had a very heavy “deplorables are idiots” vibe.

(Reading FiveThirtyEight for its coverage of policy issues is a lot like reading Playboy for the arts criticism, eccentric to say the least—I can't believe Brooks said that, unless he actually doesn't know that "policy" and "politics" in English mean two different things. Everybody knows the sexy part is the horserace stuff.)

Is the core assertion of the piece (by Alex Samuels and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, inspired largely by Glenn Youngkin's victory in last fall's Virginia gubernatorial race) that Republicans prevail because "a lot" of Americans are ignorant about issues like abortion and school curriculum so they believe the lies Republicans tell them? Well, no, it really isn't. It's that Republicans carefully choose issues to lie about that aren't really issues; things most Americans don't need to know much about, that can be exploited not factually but emotionally—

Republicans’ often misleading framing is effective not because Americans believe it wholeheartedly or because they know all that much about the issue. Rather, the reason why abortion rights and critical race theory sticks in people’s minds is that these issues touch on broader anxieties.

The septuagenarians who made up Youngkin's margin of victory don't have schoolkids at home or friends getting unexpectedly pregnant; there's no real reason they should be well informed about grade school curriculum or abortion trends. But they do know teenagers are always listening to that rap music and probably having sex sometimes, and don't like that very much, and horror stories from propagandists like Christopher Rufo about teachers telling children that white people are born evil or doctors performing "partial-birth" dismemberment abortions churn those completely normal feelings of irritation into boiling rage and fear. And

this kind of framing is successful not because Americans wholeheartedly believe it but because they don’t wholeheartedly disbelieve it. 

And the focus of the article isn't about blaming voters but, as the title declares, blaming Democrats, not that the authors have an answer, for not finding a technique to counter the strategy.

Nate Hochman, writing in the conservative National Review, recognized a hanging curve when he saw one and he walloped the piece. He noted that “all the ‘experts’ that the FiveThirtyEight writers cite in their piece are invested in believing that the progressive worldview is the objective one, and that any deviations from it are the result of irrational or insidious impulses in the electorate.”

No, that's ridiculous. It's not "deviations from a worldview" that are a problem, it's lies—that

  • critical race theory is an "existential threat" (Rufo)
  • Democrats advocate "executing babies" (Donald Trump)
  • the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone is a public health hazard (Republican senators)
  • abortion is linked to breast cancer and infertility

etc., and, more important, the insidious impulses are those of the liars, not the voters whose completely understandable anxieties are being manipulated in this relentless way. 

The experts are being experts, offering evidence for their assertions as experts do. Nate Hochman writing in the conservative National Review, wallowing in a mudhole of stereotypes and buzzwords without even acknowledging that there could be any factual issues involved

is doing something different.

He added: “All this is a perfect example of why the left’s cultural aggression is alienating to so many voters. Progressive elites are plagued by an inability to understand the nature and function of social issues in American life as anything other than a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. The essence of good citizenship in a democratic society is to spend time with those who disagree with you so you can understand their best arguments.

What "cultural aggression"? What is "cultural aggression"? How many voters? Which "progressive elites"? How should I understand the nature and function of social issues in American life? I don't hear you making any proposals. Is there anything wrong with taking sides in a battle between truth and justice on one side and ignorance and bigotry on the other? 

And I've spent a lot more time with you trying to understand your best arguments than you've spent with me. Why is this always my job? Your arguments are no damn good anyway.

As to our problem as Democrats, countering not arguments but lies, the thing the FiveThirtyEight article actually was about, I'm still thinking. But I know we have a morality war of our own, with one side voting against baby formula. 

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