Reasonable People May Disagree

And indeed they often do. Examples abound, from the right way to deconstruct and decode the human genome to the proper method of bleeding a brake line, etc. But each of these things are predicated upon a certain amount of knowledge and more than a minimal dose of reason. After all, reasonable does lead the rest of the sentence. And while we might, as I often have, argue about just what reasonable means, we can probably accept that it is at least somewhat context dependent.

For the sake of the argument I am about to make, one about politics and policy, reasonable shall be taken to mean a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to reason. Then by reason I mean rational thought, whereby one’s beliefs, when in conflict with objective reality, fall.

Partisans off all stripes often have a tenuous relationship with rationality. This is not unique to America, nor to democracies. However, a healthy functioning democracy requires reasonable people in a way that an authoritarian regime never will. As much as I personally despise the median voter theorem, it does hold some explanatory power vis-à-vis American politics. It is such that, at least theoretically, politicians will seek some middle ground between the two polar extremes. In short, let us assume that there is a relatively strong centralizing tendency present in  American politics (I think this is generally true, while missing much fine detail, but suffices here).

But what does good (read: rational) policy making require? Well, rational actors, quite obviously. Just who do we mean by actors, though? Will it suffice to have rational, reasonable elected officials and agency heads? Without getting deep in the weeds about degrees of freedom, agency issues, etc. it ought to be clear that policymakers (politicians and agency personnel) are necessary but not sufficient. They are not sufficient due to their source of power (voters and the people elected by voters), which means that our rational policymaking regime requires a reasonable polity.

Again, the emphasis is on reasonable, not unanimity of beliefs/values, etc. What is necessary is a common vocabulary, some core shared knowledge and a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to objective truth, insofar as such a thing exists. This civic dialogue helps to make finding that median a bit more clear. And ensures that such a point still sits within the realm of rational policymaking.

Unfortunately, one of our two major political parties has long ago abandoned rational thought, preferring instead a series of slogans, fearmongering and religious hucksterism. All of these are the sworn enemy to reasonableness. The examples are legion, but let’s think about just a few things one has to believe in order to be a Republican in good standing.

  1. Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim, despite his birth record from the state of Hawai’i and his attendance of a Christian church.
  2. Global warming is a secret plot by scientists who hate capitalism and want the world to return to the Stone Age.
  3. Two people of the same gender who love each other and wish to get married are secretly plotting to undermine the institution of marriage.

Let us just accept that the modern GOP is a party built upon a frighteningly large number of conspiracy theories (Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style on steroids, if you will). Nearly of these “theories” are easily falsifiable. Yet they persist, not merely on the fringe of the Republican Party, but in the very mainstream of it.

This makes rational policymaking nearly impossible. Not only does it prevent the type of civic dialogue necessary for democracy to exist (how does one have a dialogue with someone yelling socialist at you?), but it has the potential to drastically shift the median voter to a point well outside of what would be objectively good policymaking (see, for example, polling data on the lower Manhattan mosque).

All of this does not bode well for the future of our democracy or our country. We have come to a point where knowledge and expertise are cast aside for religion and gut feeling, by at least one-third of our population. Will we look back on this time as an aberration in a great country’s trajectory, or will future historians cite 21st century America as they do Rome- a once great empire that lost its way.

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