Chris Blattman

Shutdown comments: The loony right is not so loony as you think?

Conservative intellectual Yuval Levin writes in the National Review:

Republicans did not do nearly well enough in the last election to enact legislation that would repeal Obamacare. In order to repeal that law and attempt an effective reform of our health-care system along conservative lines, they will need to do better in the next election and the one to follow. To that end, they can take several kinds of steps with regard to Obamacare in the meantime: steps that would weaken the law (by highlighting its faults or disabling some of its elements) and ultimately make it easier to replace; steps that would weaken the law’s supporters (by further connecting them to the law in the public’s mind and forcing them to defend its least popular elements) and ultimately make them easier to replace; and steps that would strengthen the law’s opponents (by clearly identifying them as opponents of an unpopular measure and champions of a more appealing approach) and help them gain more public support.

In my view (shared with all who would listen to no avail, for what it’s worth) the original defund strategy was not well suited to doing any of these things.

Via Andrew Sullivan, who says in a post titled, How to talk to the loony right:

The tone of this piece is its perfection. The studied civility when talking with complete fanatics, the careful reason when interacting with constitutional know-nothings…

Are the loonies actually loony? In a conflict, the biggest and most common strategic mistake is to think that the other side is insane or inhuman, their action illogical or barbaric.

A few thoughts:

People value bold, symbolic gestures against things that outrage them. For a crude example, think of every Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone movie ever made–revenge taken at all costs against impossible odds. Not only do we empathize, we actually pay $15 to see it done. The main different between the loonies on the right and you is probably the issue at hand.

Also, while the bold gesture could be counter-productive, it is not always so. Yesterday, HBR’s Justin Fox reminded us what Thomas Schelling had to say about the Strategy of conflict:

If I say “Row, or I’ll tip the boat over and drown us both,” you’ll say you don’t believe me. But if I rock the boat so that it may tip over, you’ll be more impressed.

In the shutdown so far, I’ve seen very little political science in the political discussion.

17 Responses

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  2. I’m not sure what qualifies as “loony” per se, but I think we’re really over complicating this. It’s basically a principal-agent problem. In this case the principal is the entire US population, and the agents are the Congressional representatives. Those representatives’ interests are not aligned with those of the American people; a Tea Party congressman from a super-conservative, gerrymandered district can absolutely advocate a debt ceiling-driven financial crisis and actually GAIN popularity among his or her constituents. In that sense, it’s not loony from the perspective of self-interested decision making. It’s actually quite rational. But it’s also just a horribly immoral exploitation of a market failure.

    A relevant question is: Is our whole political system loony? It basically just allowed powerful donors to throw their money behind a populist movement in hopes of achieving lower taxes and looser regulations. And now, that strategy seems to have created a Frankenstein monster intent on smashing the global economy. That this narrative can actually happen seems loony to me.

  3. Regarding point 1, I hope the things that outrage me are a bit more em, er, what’s the word? – outrageous – than ACA. Here we have a healthcare approach originally designed by conservatives, first implemented by the 2012 GOP candidate for president, bringing the US slightly closer to the rest of human civilization. The loony right’s choice of outrage is exhibit A in the case that they’re loons.

    Regarding the second point – was Schelling thinking of long term cooperative relationships when he said that? Would you use this approach in your marriage? With long term friends or family members? Neighbors? Would you be inclined to think of somebody who did use the “let’s sink the boat” approach in such situations, “Wow, that guy’s a complete LOON?”

  4. While not technically political science, I think Robert Costa is basically nailing it:
    The hard-right Republicans are rational in what they’re doing because their local constituents support it (and would, in fact, be likely to punish them if they didn’t), Boehner is acting rational because he’s vulnerable in his position and really wants to remain Speaker — it all makes sense.
    The problem is that the institutions of US democracy are not made to work with such narrowly self-interested actors. Linz, channeling Sartori, writes: “The American system works or has worked in spite of,
    rather than because of, the presidential constitution of the United States.
    To the extent that it can still perform, it needs three things that tend to
    unblock it: flexibility or lack of ideological rigidity; weak, undisciplined
    parties; and pork-barrel and locality-oriented politics”
    we have lost all three of these. That would seem to be a problem…

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