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Book Review: “Why the Right Went Wrong” by E.J. Dionne Jr.

why-the-right-went-wrong-coverI follow politics religiously. This is essential to the goal of escaping from ignorance, because politics has a dramatic and measurable effect on the lives of ordinary people all over the world. Politicians have unique leverage to either support science in significant ways, or to discredit it for whole generations.

In late 2016, America faces a threat to scientific thinking and secular values like never before imagined in the guise of Donald J. Trump. He has run a campaign of the most toxic ignorance conceivable, lying more baldly and more aggressively than any Presidential Candidate in the modern era. The truly troubling thing is not necessarily Trump’s outrageous lies, but the fact that his supporters will apparently believe anything he says not matter how inaccurate. How did this happen? How did an entire generation of Republican voters become so disconnected from the reality of empirical data that they will not question anything their man says, no matter how ridiculous?

E.J. Dionne Jr. is here to enlighten us with the definitive account of how the Republican Party, the party of Reagan and Lincoln, descended to such depths as to nominate Trump. To say that Trump is an aberration for the conservative movement is to be willfully ignorant of the decades-long pattern that prepared the Republican base to receive him. The story is laid bare in Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to Trump and Beyond.

Dionne is a long-time Washington Post columnist and a fellow with the Brookings Institute. His journalistic credentials are impeccable and he is highly respected by his peers. He presents a detailed, fact-based history of the Republican Party starting with the Barry Goldwater years. Any right-wingers who cry foul that Dionne might be biased have clearly not actually read the book, since he repeatedly attempts to paint the party in the best possible light allowed by the evidence.

I grew up in the time of Ronald Reagan, and watching his speeches as a child made me a patriot. Reagan was a true preacher for the American Dream, and was able to inspire even his more hardened critics. I’m not here to argue for or against any of Reagan’s policies, but it’s hard to dispute Reagan’s rhetorical genius.

I bring up Reagan to preface this review because there are profound lessons to be learned from the conduct of the Democratic Party during the Reagan years. They opposed most of what Reagan did, but did so with some degree of respect. They acknowledged that Reagan won fairly, and that the majority of Americans supported him. It helped very much that America was facing a global enemy in the form of the USSR, which helped bring Americans from both parties together for the common good.

During the Clinton years, this fundamental respect from the opposition party went out the window. The Republican Party, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, adopted the politics of personal destruction as their mantra, doing everything they could to discredit Clinton and destroy his presidency. They attacked him with such relentless zeal that it severely turned voters off and led to a public embrace of Clinton that has barely waned to this day, despite the specters of scandal that will forever haunt him.

This strategy, of attempting to discredit every good thing the other party does and blow up every bad thing unreasonably out of proportion has become the conservative calling card in the years since. The problem with this approach, which should be obvious to anyone that is even remotely scientifically minded, is that it forces you to play fast and loose with your own principles.  If your stated position is absolute opposition no matter what, then how do you react if your opponent says or does things that you would fundamentally agree with on the merits?  When confronted with this dilemma, you only have two choices: accept that your opponent can be right some of the time, or abandon your own principles for the sake of continuing opposition.

This book details how, during the Obama years, Republicans overwhelmingly chose the latter. Barack Obama is a left-leaning centrist, and his policies have repeatedly reflected this throughout his Presidency. Early in his first term, Obama bent over backwards in attempts to compromise with Republicans that upset many in own his party. Many of Obama’s economic proposals were a mix of Left & Right ideas. His signature domestic achievement, Obamacare, was modeled on a system implemented by the Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney, and the much-scorned Individual Mandate was an idea proposed by the conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation.

When you understand that Obama took a conservative framework for his health law, it renders absurd the common Republican critique that it’s a socialist takeover of the healthcare. No sane, empirically-minded person would say that with a straight face.  I’m not arguing for or against the merits of the law, I’m merely stating that it is patently not a socialist takeover of anything, and to suggest so is to be utterly dishonest.

This pattern of Obama embracing Republican ideas in the hope that they would meet him halfway, only to have Republicans flee from their own ideas and pretend like they never supported them continued for years. This book chronicles how Obama completely ceded the argument about the importance of addressing the national debt to his Republican opposition and engaged in aggressive cuts to government spending despite compelling data that this was a terrible decision which prolonged the country’s economic recovery by years.

The choice by Republican leaders to systemically obstruct Obama and paint even his most conservative proposals as far-left socialism has had a disastrous long-term effect on the Republican base. Since Obama was a centrist with good science and solid data behind most of his polices, the only way for Republican leaders to convince their voters that Obama was Leftist Evil was to undermine or ignore any evidence that went against their talking points.  Thus for eight consecutive years, Republican leaders trained their base to be a cult of personality that ignored facts and analytics in favor of hollow rhetoric. They did the exact opposite of what Escape From Ignorance seeks to do by fundamentally undermining empirical thinking among their voters.

While they did this, either on purpose or incidentally for the sake of political expediency, Republican leaders also promised their base a set of completely unattainable and counter-factual policy goals based on bad assumptions and even worse cherry-picked data.

So from the perspective of the average Republican voter who gets info exclusively from Fox News or conservative talk-radio, they spent almost a decade in a fact-free bubble being lied to by leaders they trusted. They were made to believe that Democrats are evil agents intent on destroying America, despite the mountain of evidence that Democratic policies are good for the economy. For anyone like E.J. Dionne Jr. or myself who watched this horrorshow play out in real-time, it came as no surprise that the Republican base was eager to elevate a blowhard like Trump. I can’t even blame them, no matter how upsetting I find it. They were the victims of unscrupulous politicians who put their own power above principle, above party, above country, above reason, above facts, above even common sense…and now all of America is paying the price for their failure to escape from ignorance.


 

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