Now more than ever, I was right all along

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A couple of days ago, I read a column by Matt Taibbi in which he asserts that dissatisfaction with the status quo means there is no future for the political centre. Today, I read a column by Geoff Plant in which he asserts that dissatisfaction with the status quo means that the political centre is the future. Both columns, I would argue, are clear instances of a phenomenon sometimes called “now-more-than-ever-ism” (a coinage attributed to Lawrence Summers). David Autor (cited here by Joseph Heath) summarizes it like this:

  1. You have a set of policies that you favor at all times and under all circumstances, e.g., cut taxes, remove regulations, drill-baby-drill, etc.
  2. You see a problem that needs fixing (e.g., the economy stinks).
  3. You say, ‘We need to enact my favored policies now more than ever.’

This kind of reasoning seems to straddle the line between unconscious confirmation bias and deliberate rhetorical technique. New developments are interpreted and presented as bolstering the case for a position the writer already holds, when in fact the validity of that interpretation depends on the truth of the position in question. Now-more-than-ever-ism purports to give political opponents or neutral parties reasons to adopt the writer’s position, but the reasoning is circular: unless one reads the conclusion into the supporting premises, the argument is logically invalid.

This is precisely the problem with Taibbi’s argument: centrism is a failure because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, caused by the failure of centrism. Suppose you’re reading this as a card-carrying political centrist. Because the conclusion that centrism is a failure is unsupported without the premise that centrism is a failure, Taibbi’s argument won’t have given you the slightest reason to change your political views.

Interestingly, appeals to dissatisfaction with the status quo have been a persistent theme in successful campaigns by centrist politicians over the last twenty years. Rhetoric and slogans about breaking with the past figured prominently in the campaigns of Blair, Obama, Cameron, Trudeau and Macron: “a new dawn”, “hope”, “change we can believe in”, “forward”, “real change”, a “democratic revolution”. Even if centrist policies are a cause of problems with the status quo, centrists have been more successful than most at capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the status quo to acquire political power.

Unsurprisingly, then, centrists tend to see things differently than Taibbi, which brings me to Geoff Plant. Plant’s diagnosis is the exact opposite of Taibbi’s. The objectionable features of the status quo, in his view, are a product of political polarization — parties abandoning the centre in favour of the left and right. But although the diagnosis is different, the reasoning is the same: polarized politics is a failure because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, caused by the failure of polarized politics. The right kind of politics is centrist politics, because centrist politics is the right kind of politics.

I think now-more-than-ever-ism is politically toxic, for two closely related reasons. First, it is the worst kind of preaching to the choir. Preaching to the choir — producing, consuming and discussing ideologically informed commentary, theory, history and art — is often a positive thing, to be sure; every great political ideology develops its own intellectual culture, and tends to thrive when that intellectual culture thrives. Now-more-than-ever-ism is the exception, containing nothing but empty affirmations masquerading as insight. There is an opportunity cost here; any time spent on this kind of thing would be better put to almost any other use.

But in addition to the deleterious effect on a political movement’s internal culture, I think there is a credible risk of harm to the broader political culture in which these movements are embedded. Arguments such as Taibbi’s and Plant’s purport to appeal to reasonable people who do not necessarily share their ideologically commitments to begin with. But partisans who deploy these arguments in political debate will be disappointed to find that people who do not already share their views are totally unpersuaded. Because partisans would only try to use these arguments if they failed to notice the circular reasoning, they may conclude that those who are unpersuaded are not reasonable. To the extent that democratic politics is about reasoning together (and surely this is partly what democratic politics is about, even if it is not the whole story), it is plausible that encouraging the impression that other people are unreasonable could negatively affect the health of a democracy.

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