“Epistemic closure” is the newest addition to the longstanding “all conservatives are dumb/crazy” meme. In a particularly bald piece of self-serving partisan slander, Marc Ambinder just asks flat out “Have Conservatives Gone Mad?” The practice of charging conservatives with being stupid and/or crazy has an unfortunately long pedigree. In 2004, two professors published a really bad piece of pseudo-scholarship claiming that all conservatives were mentally ill. (The fact that such obvious partisan drivel could make it through a peer-review process served more to expose the flaws in peer review than any flaws in conservatives’ cognitive capabilities.) The 1994, 2000, and 2004 presidential election results were attributed to “white male rage”. And, decades ago, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater were openly cast as insane fools incapable of and unwelcome in policy or governance.
Trouble is, such accusations do more damage to those making them than those who are targeted. Because they are a tiny minority in the educational system and among the cultural elites in this country, conservatives are generally accustomed from a very young age with being targeted by name-calling and misrepresentation. In a perverse way, every time the process is escalated yet again, it serves to reaffirm some conservatives’ self-identification as brave resisters of a smug progressive hegemony. Reagan even famously built his career on it, as has Rush Limbaugh and many other conservative talk hosts. The more some progressives call conservatives crazy, the more they add to the audience of some of the conservative talkers they hate the most — the charge entrenches the phenomenon. And substantively, the accusations of conservative stupidity/insanity don’t actually respond to any conservative policy arguments. In fact, when the response to conservative . of, say, out-of-control federal is just ad hominum attack on the mental capacity of the critics, it tends to appear as an inability to respond substantively. That is probably the opposite message from that intended.
More importantly, it just misses the point. It is certainly true that conservatives have some nutcases running amok calling every progressive policy initiation “socialism” as if that were some kind of talisman that wards off evil spirits. But it is not true that those are the sum total of conservative policy arguments. Also, for every right-winger like Glenn Beck screaming “socialism” now, there was a left-winger like Cindy Sheehan screaming “Hitler” just a few short years ago. Did that mean that all progressives were stupid/crazy? Of course not. To claim that the excesses of some far-right talking heads proves conservatives are all crazy or stupid is frankly just pure hypocrisy. What it really meant a few years ago and what it really means now is that extremists exist on both sides and that letting the extremists from the other side co-opt the debate is the real stupidity.
So let’s dispense with the “all conservatives are crazy” meme and start focusing on the substantial policy arguments that are being neglected. Let’s talk about how to get a trillion-dollar deficit under control without completely crippling the economic recovery with massive tax increases or completely gutting social services with massive spending cuts. Let’s stop calling the other side stupid and start acting smart. And let’s stop letting the real problem — the extremists on both sides — run our policy debates off the road.
UPDATE: Ezra Klein claims that a greater conservative problem with the “epistemic closure” can be proven objectively by simply noting the larger size of its media “echo chamber” in the form of talk radio and FoxNews. Even if it were true, however, that we can measure the qualitative nature of a mindset by simply counting market share of media outlets, Klein’s contention proves too much. Because the combined audience of all the non-Fox, non-talk radio media outlets wherein progressive viewpoints are hegemonic vastly outstrips even the alleged Limbaugh-Beck beheamoths. Thus, if the size of the echo chamber is the measure of the problem, Klein may just be blind to the 800-pound gorilla of an echo chamber in his own camp.
Also, Klein’s invocation of “confirmation bias” as an element of the conservative echo chamber is ironic in light of the role confirmation bias plays in constructing the progressive image of what conservatives believe in the first place. Until more progressives start letting individual conservatives (and moderates) speak for themselves instead of being spoken for by ridiculous parody figures selected by a few anti-conservative opinion leaders, I don’t think the complaint about “confirmation bias” can be seen as anything by cynical and hypocritical.
Serious comments are welcome by email. Comments accusing the author of being a tool of whichever party he does not happen to be criticizing that particular day will be laughed at and deleted, kind of like a “your mom” joke. Comments which actually discuss may be addressed in an update to this post.