Truth versus power in American governance

Noah touched on this earlier in the Democrat Autopsy thread, but I found the oh so sweet tears of Paul Krugman this week not only delicious, but symbolic of why voters seem to be so hard for the media to comprehend. In his defiant cry to the gods of reason, Triumph of the Wrong, the pundit’s pundit makes the following poison nettle observations cloaked in beautiful flowers.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet midterms to men of understanding. Or as I put it on the eve of another Republican Party sweep, politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth. Still, it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.

Being confident and self-assured is a hallmark of punditry. Some would probably say it’s a job requirement. I enjoy watching Paul Krugman sob into his beer as much as the next fellow, but the mistake he makes in this column – as do so many of his colleagues – offers a valuable lesson to everyone who covers the news or opines on elections and government policy. The alternate version of Krugman’s message is essentially to say, you may have won control of the government and the agenda, but you’re still stupid, so we’re going to watch with smug satisfaction as you defecate in your own food dish. There are two separate but equally important flaws in this approach.

In terms of effective communications, this is essentially cardinal sin numero uno. If you run into someone at the pub who disagrees with something you’ve said, you will respond one way if they come up and say, I found your position interesting, but I have some questions about it. Your reaction will be a bit different if they simply walk up and sock you in the nose. I could name a few issues where positions I held have been modified by new information I’ve learned from people with whom I still essentially disagree. Conversely, I can’t imagine ever being much swayed to the differing opinion of someone who comes after me with a tire iron.

But the second fallacy in Krugman’s teary eyed musings is that the loser can still somehow be the winner. Times may change, and your preferred policy may later come into greater favor, but at any given moment the direction of the country is chosen by the voters. This does not mean that our collective hive intelligence is always the most productive, but (and this is the point the author misses in its entirety) in a democratic system the expressed will of the voters is still right. That’s the whole point of this Government By The People experiment we’ve been toying with for two plus centuries now.

And “truth” is a rather scarce commodity when it comes to matters of opinion and policy. Should we have a higher or lower tax rate? Should we bomb the Iranians or make them partners? How many regulations are too many? You may have a well researched and thoughtful opinion on any of these questions, but the fact is that they are still based on predictions that you are making at any given moment. There will be no “truth” until after the experiment has been run in real time. And flatly informing a majority of Americans that their choice is stupid and uninformed will not get you any closer to giving your preferred theory a test run.