The Broken Overton Window Fallacy

The angst-y topic of the week for conservatives and Republicans appears to be over the future of the party, with Trumpers and NeverTrumpers at odds like Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Megan McArdle recently wrote about NeverTrumpers:

“Yet as the party heads into 2020 with Trump still very much at the helm, a number of people are beginning to ask an obvious question: “What’s the point?” Conservative resistance hasn’t ousted Trump; all it’s done is split the movement. So as political scientist and RealClearPolitics writer Sean Trende recently asked in a Twitter thread, what is the end game for the dedicated holdouts?”

McArdle explains problems with each of Trende’s three possibilities.

  1. Conceding defeat, she says, “means abandoning your dearest principles — and if you think the Trump administration is likely to end in some combination of disaster or corruption scandals, it means positioning yourself to be splattered by the fallout.”
  2. She says that “in practice there’s little benefit” to positioning yourself as the loyal opposition.  “Liberals will identify you with all of Trump’s worst excesses, while the Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist.”
  3. Pursuing active insurgency “means sacrificing any realistic chance of retaking the helm of the party,” says McArdle, in paraphrase of Trende.  She continues: “If you have been actively working to nuke Trump’s presidency, then if you succeed — or even if external events do the job for you — you can be sure that your faction will be the one group not chosen to rebuild the party out of the rubble.”

The second of these seems easily the best to me.  Liberals will identify conservatives who choose that with Trump’s excesses, sure, but then again, they’ll do that anyway.  Expecting rationality, fairness and consistency out of the Left these days is a fool’s errand; they often appear a breath’s worth of rationalization away from doing anything they please.  The Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist?  Well, no– a fifth column is almost definitionally a secret organization of fellow-travelers.  They may regard you as “cucks”– a word I hate, incidentally, and not least because it’s used ad infinitum, ad nauseam— but you have to stand for what you stand for, and once their ambition is tempered and the laws the Left proposes to put in place next time they get into power are seen clearly enough to be feared, they may come back.

But my reaction would be to reject this trichotomy.

Politics is a lot like capitalism, in being a system intended in part to produce information about what people desire and how much.  Both systems are often distorted.  In capitalism, for example, the ethanol tax credit ruins the data about how much people actually want ethanol, while in politics, the Commission on Presidential Debates skews information about how much people might like the Libertarian or Green parties’ platforms by keeping their candidates out of the debates.  As I’ve argued, politics steers idealism as much as the other way around.   The marketplace of ideas was turned to the private benefit of a pretty cozy group of politicians, bureaucratic mandarins and cultural influencers.  They steered people away from issues that were uncomfortable or politically unprofitable or economically crazy.  This is one way of avoiding bad policies, it’s true.  But distorting the marketplace of ideas that way leads to a distorted picture of what people want, and how much.

So.  What use is all this talk of unaddressed issues to a NeverTrumper trying to figure out what to do?

Well, we’ve come about to the limits of the set of policies that elites put together back in the 1980s and 1990s that Fukuyama called “the end of history”– the seemingly perfect equation of free trade producing greater societal wealth, producing (I argue) greater capacity in people for social liberalism.  No one thought the equation of this capacity was a hyperbola, so that you could reach a point of diminishing returns of marginal utility to people of ever-cheaper goods and services.  No one knew saw that there was eventually so much market for the ideas that elites of both parties quietly agreed to ignore and backburner– such as nationalism, immigration, the Savonarola-like extremes of identity politics, and a desire by poorer people not for handouts, but for meaningful work and dignity– that it could flood past the cultural and professional gatekeepers (who were in any case weakened by technological change).  The real question dividing Trumpers and NeverTrumpers is the same dividing Pelosi Democrats from Bernie Democrats:  What issues will the parties stand for going forward? 

That, then, is the question that NeverTrumpers should ask.  To date, NeverTrumpers and Pelosi Democrats have seemed united in thinking that “true conservatism” and “true liberalism” means positions only on the set of issues that they confined themselves to since about 1990 or so, and adherence to the worldview that self-justified ignoring other issues.  McArdle mentions that Jonah Goldberg argues that NeverTrumpers should keep fighting Trump simply to “do the right thing” (her paraphrase).  I like Jonah Goldberg, but honestly, a better euphemism for doubling down on one’s worldview, a worldview which saw none of this coming, is hard to imagine.  The wiser course would be to triangulate and try to see how one’s previous worldview was mistaken and which policies beloved of Trumpers they can come to terms with.  Remember that there is no other way to turn a stampede than to take the lead.

Trende’s question really amounts to one about repairs to the broken Overton Window— whether Trump’s voters will, even after their perceived best hope of realizing them is gone, surrender the issues that 2016 liberated or the ambition that Trump awoke.  It seems clear that they will not.  McArdle has often written about path dependence.  We are now in the middle of it.  If NeverTrumpers want to get rid of the man– and I can certainly understand that– I think they’re going to have to surrender the hope of controlling the issues, and instead begin the work of finding someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she can be as effective as Trump has been, without Trump’s manifold flaws, excrescences and sins.

TL; DR: The issues that Trump’s supporters wanted to talk about are not going away, so NeverTrumpers should adjust accordingly.

A victory for due process, or the confirmation hearings of Grand Moff Tarkin?

I hope you have energy for one more damn blog post about Brett Kavanaugh, who has now been confirmed to the Supreme Court.   I don’t think herein you will discover any new or profound points, but perhaps.  I deeply regret and apologize for my lack of editor.

Megan McArdle and Jonah Goldberg were right, of course, that there was no good outcome, at the end.  Either the Left was going to be furious at having been balked and at having a woman’s accusations of sexual assault and attempted rape be disbelieved enough to not spike a nomination to the Supreme Court, or the Right was going to be furious at the nakedly political attempt to ambush a nominee at the eleventh hour with accusations of vile crimes that could neither be proven nor disproven, despite the Democratic Senator in question having had the accusatory letter for months without revealing it and despite the fact that even the people named by the accusers as having been there declined to back up the details or substance of the accusation.

I was and am on the side of confirming Kavanaugh.  Naturally I’m glad how it turned out– in that one respect.

To Kavanaugh himself I am indifferent.  If credible charges of any offense had been made back in the summer and he had backed out, or if Trump had withdrawn his nomination, and then Trump offered up someone else, I would have been fine with that.  The way it happened, though, made the stakes rather different than merely the identity of the person warming the ninth seat.  The pathetically obviously political quality of the timing of the release– to try to delay matters past the midterm elections next month– the hypocrisy of the Left (for example, in having covered up and apologized for Bill Clinton’s non-teenage mashing, or their apologetics for the crimes of black youths of a similar age to Kavanaugh in 1982, arguing that teenagers shouldn’t be held to as high a standard), and the Waterford clarity that this was about revenge for denying Merrick Garland a vote adds up to the unavoidable conclusion that rationality had nothing to do with the Left’s position.  Which was more or less, to blither, fulminate and fling any shit that comes to hand, no matter how vile.

The Left’s position, when not purely partisan, is essentially one of emotion, and, depth of rage notwithstanding, it is still not acceptable to make nothing more than emotion a policy consideration.  Emotion will, true, always play a role in human affairs.  Voters need not hew to any standards but their own, and the fear of voter anger does affect politicians.  But politicians must at least pretend to be rational.  There has to be a real policy issue at stake which is argued to be more important than the other issue.  For politicians, it cannot openly be “the depth of my side’s emotions must be more important than your reasons”, especially when that issue is something central, like due process or the Rule of Law.  And, momentary fluctuations notwithstanding, it has in the end to be justifiable emotion.  Emotion that one side has stirred up to a fury pitch out of a sense of identity does not qualify.

Voters on the Right got angry, too, of course, and that played a role.  But the Right’s position is one of basic prudence and common sense: that if this is all that it takes to spike a nomination, we will all have consented to race to the bottom in terms of standards, and we’ll get a steady stream of accusations from the mentally unstable and cheap opportunists willing to lie.  Even sincerity, which Kavanaugh’s first accuser displayed, is not enough.  It might not be enough even with events only a year old, because the unreliability of memories and eyewitness testimony is well-known, but most certainly memories of events 36 years ago which no one else from that time and place supports, making an allegation that the rest of Kavanaugh’s life seems to belie, are not enough.

So the Left turns out to be who’s enraged, and will spin this into a political Just-So story, some new component of their identity narrative, along the lines of the confirmation by the Imperial Senate of a glib, fast-talking Grand Moff Tarkin making all the right sounds.  But rage and storytelling and the rationalization of the imposition of end results are the Left’s normal modus operandi.  How is this different?  And in most respects other than taxes and the 2nd Amendment the Left has gotten most things they wanted for the past half-century.  Honestly, I have no idea what they think they can rationalize to do in retribution, that they haven’t already or wouldn’t have done before.  Spent options and burnt bridges make for poor leverage.