I commented on the content of Ezra Klein’s piece on confirmation bias in my most recent post. But let’s consider what’s behind the piece. What would make Ezra Klein call into question the optimism about politics that is so much a part of Ezra Kleinism? Kleinism, the set of ideas that were so ascendant from c. 2006-2009, and whose adherents experienced a brief fit of renewed triumphalism in Nov. 2012 and for a few months subsequently, holds (1) that society’s problems are technical problems that an intelligently run, competent government can solve scientifically, and (2) that the public, with enough information and transparency, will get behind or even demand such technocratic government. The only thing that has prevented this hitherto were trivial divisions, created by trivial politics, not by any deeply held beliefs. If the media, and a charismatic politician, respect us enough to respond with a better kind of politics, we will respond positively; so the thinking went.
Klein is now willing to question (2), confidence in the voters being “rational” enough to bring about good government. The opening paragraphs leave open the possibility that he is willing to question (1.) He describes the “more information hypothesis” as holding that “our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all. The theory is particularly prevalent in Washington, where partisans devote enormous amounts of energy to persuading each other that there’s really a right answer to the difficult questions in American politics – and that they have it. But the more information hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards.”
But Klein really doesn’t doubt that there is really a right answer to the difficult political questions, and that technocratic thinkers like him transcend petty, partisan bubbles to find these answers; it is others who are living in an intellectual bubble, not Klein and the journolist crowd, Barack Obama, Colbert/Stewart, and so forth. He does briefly entertain the possibility, staring into the abyss of nihilism, as he puts it (“If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?”) but then shrinks from this abyss to focus on the question of whether we can hope to solve the problem of confirmation bias in other people, such as Justice Scalia. Klein presents himself as more willing than Kahan to stare into the abyss only because he is more willing to confront the hopelessness of other people’s narrow-mindedness. And that is how the piece becomes an instance of confirmation bias.
Still, Klein is considering the possibility that the political pathologies standing in the way of progressive government are more deeply rooted than he probably would have once thought. Why is this? After all, Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi pushed through a $800 billion stimulus, a bit of Keynesian macroeconomic engineering that was loaded with projects designed to achieve a whole technocratic wishlist. They pushed through ObamaCare. Combined, this was a once-in-a-generation success in terms of implementing a bold agenda. Then, in 2012, Obama won reelection, behind the “coalition of the ascendent.” This should be a time when Ezra Kleinism is thoroughly vindicated.
Yet getting reelected isn’t the same thing as uniting the country around a vision. Elections happen every four years; political transformations are much rare. The 2012 election caused pundits in the center and left to forget that the grand post-political vision was a failure, but now those worries are returning.
Progressives throughout the Obama era have fluctuated between great optimism about overcoming partisanship and ideological disagreement on the one hand, and on the other hand the idea that Obama personally is horribly naïve to believe such things, that he fails to understand the depth of the nihilism of Republicans, that our political system holds us back from achieving truly great visions, and that backward impulses such as fundamentalism, racism and distrust of government are deeply rooted.* As then-Baylor quarterback and poli-sci major Robert Griffin III told Grantland in 2011, “A lot of people get into politics because they’d like to change something. I think even Barack Obama is realizing you can have all these lofty goals, and people can buy into them, but at the end of the day the system’s not changing for anybody.” Sure, this was after the Republican landslide of 2010, but again, that came only on the heels of the stimulus and ObamaCare. What more did RGIII want?
Yet this was the prevailing view on the left at the time- that somehow Republican obstructionism had blocked Obama’s agenda. At the sub-rational level, other things were making a stronger impression than the victory on ObamaCare. The economy wasn’t recovering, and that required explaining. The country was very far from embracing the progressive vision it had seemed to endorse in 2008, and that required explaining. Divisions were intensifying, and a new and more virulent form of conservative extremism was seizing the population. Republicans had taken Congress. And having done so, they really were winning negotiation with Obama. All these things had far more impact than did ObamaCare on the narrative progressives were constructing than did ObamaCare, which was that Republicans were uniquely nihilistic and Obama was far too reasonable and naïve to confront them.
And really, although their narrative made little logical sense, progressives were right to worry about the things they were worried about. If the country hadn’t really fully embraced the progressive vision, if it was still a 20% progressive, 40% conservative, 40% moderate country, they had reason to be unhappy. That means Republicans’ “intransigence” and “extremism”, and Democrats’ moderation under ordinary circumstances, has foundations in the makeup of public opinion itself. That being the case, how were they going to get Republicans to compromise and give them the revenue they so desperately need to maintain the entitlement state? If Republicans were demanding entitlement cuts in return for revenue, that would be one thing; it might even, from a moderate progressive point of view, be constructive, in helping make the entitlement state sustainable. But if they aren’t even going to do that, where does that leave things?
And what about ObamaCare? 40% intensely dislike it, 20% intensely like it. It’s true the 40% in the center forgot about it for awhile, or many of them thought it had been repealed or ruled unconstitutional. Indifference makes a path to repeal difficult, but the pattern of public opinion is still a problem for the law.
Back in 2009, Paul Krugman argued that we need government-provided care in order to control costs:
“You could rely on a health maintenance organization to make the hard choices and do the cost management, and to some extent we do. But HMOs have been highly limited in their ability to achieve cost-effectiveness because people don’t trust them — they’re profit-making institutions, and your treatment is their cost.” The implication is that people do trust government to make health decisions. Yet the subsequent five years show that they don’t- Obama tried desperately to make the case that his program wouldn’t amount to “government-run health care,” that if you liked your current plan you could keep it, not to argue that government could do a good job making decisions. And even still, people’s worries weren’t alleviated. So now we have a law designed to have government make “the hard choices,” and a public that doesn’t trust it to do so.
On top of that, the law’s perceptual legitimacy problems create difficulty for the individual mandate- people don’t feel obligated to sign up or, if they are intense opponents, they feel obligated not to sign up.
All this leaves the progressive project in a perilous state. The idea of a scientifically run government transcending partisanship and ideology to solve society’s problems has taken serious hits. People like Ezra Klein are looking for explanations.
* As I noted in a post last year, progressives’ post-2012 narrative differed from that of post-2008: the new narrative was “not that BHO’s rhetorical superiority swept away traditional politics. It was, rather, that Obama and his campaign used superior analytic ability to dominate traditional politics (and Nate Silver, their latest icon, used his to predict correctly), while Republicans’ anti-science narrow-mindedness prevented them from realizing their situation and sealed their doom.” Whereas the 2010-11 narrative had seen Obama as helpless against Republican ruthlessness, meaning progressives moral superiority was preventing them from achieving political success, after 2012 progressives’ intellectual superiority was the cause of their political success. By re-embracing partisan politics, thought, progressives had “silently narrowed their sights.”