Our Broken Dialog

by Will on August 24, 2010

Subbing over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Conor Friedersdorf passes on the most plausible reading I’ve seen so far about what the heck’s going on with the “Tea Party” stuff, from an article by William Voegli of the Claremont Institute.

Our new meritocratic masters have been more conspicuously smart than wise. They know a lot, but don’t know what they don’t know… Their expectation that the rest of us will be deferential to their expertise, like citizens of European nations that are social but not especially political democracies, has triggered the Tea Party backlash, and the resurgence of the “Don’t Tread on Me” spirit.

As a result, eloquent promises about how government can be expanded to the benefit of all while taxes are increased only for a very few, and how ingenious new programs can make health care simultaneously more extensive and less expensive, are setting off alarms.

Friedersdorf notes:

This critique ought to be extended. The rosier predictions regarding the Iraq war and the notion that we’re always on the side of the Laffer curve that enables costless tax cuts are as much examples of smart meritocrats defying common sense.

I agree about Iraq, although I’d note that back in 2003 there were plenty of experts — college professors, Arabic translators, former diplomats — warning that there were good reasons to expect the Iraqis not to be as hospitable as we might hope, and that the weapons intelligence was suspect. People just didn’t want to think about that, so these people were not allowed into the mainstream debate.

Two thoughts:

First, the idea that we’ve been ill served by our technocratic elites is fair as far as it goes. But I think that this retreat to an anti-intellectual, “common sense only” position really highlights the failings specifically of our media elite. The reason that technocratic proposals are “setting off alarms” is because most people do not have the information and tools necessary to evaluate specific proposals on the merits. The media’s failure in 2002 and 2003 to present the warnings of serious Middle East experts with good track records is a perfect illustration of how this does not, in actual fact, occur. Somehow in our world, the “experts” that the media finds and puts forth as credible sources on these issues are always paid policy advocates who have been consistently alarmist and consistently hawkish (that’s what they’re paid to do!), many of whom speak no Arabic or Persian and have never lived in the region. The typical news show at the time would either have a bunch of these “experts” on and maybe a military guy, and they’d all talk about the dire threat and agree with each other a lot. Or, they’d have an “expert” and also some politician who was taking the unpopular anti-war position, and there’d be a good yelling match. Or the pol would be a spineless jellyfish of a man, and would equivocate a lot to signal that he was no pacifist, he. In any case, the public never got a fair hearing of good expert thinking. The same is true with all our policy disputes lately.

Second, I’m skeptical that the “Tea Party” needs to be explained. As best I can tell, these people are just traditional conservatives, favoring the same freedoms as usual (freedom of contract, gun ownership, freedom to practice Christianity) and also opposing the same freedoms as usual (immigration, gay rights, due process). It seems notable that they’re now dressing up and saying a bunch of hyperbolic stuff about tyranny and revolution, but I think they may just do that whenever they’re out of power. I recall that sort of thing happening a lot under Clinton as well.

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