Facts Are Ideological if Cons Admit It

Vox Logo - Since They Can't Be Bothered to Make OneJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning about one of my obsessions, Why the New Data Journalism Really Is Partisan. Unfortunately, Chait doesn’t come right now and say what the truth is. So let me lay it out. Yes: liberals and conservatives both have their own base ideologies. Liberals believe that collective action ought to be used to improve society. Conservatives believe that every man is for himself. But since this goes against the beliefs of the vast majority of the population, conservatives have to feign interest in the practical social good of policy, even though they have no interest in it.

This gets to the heart of what always looks like hypocrisy on the part of conservatives. We often scratch our heads when conservatives seem to be resistant to facts. But the hypocrisy is not this, but rather their unwillingness to admit to what they actually believe. I say it all the time, but it can’t be said enough: conservatism is the ideology of the powerful. So it isn’t surprising that they don’t like Obamacare. It cuts government spend, insures poor people, and taxes the rich. Conservatives are ambivalent about the first, uninterested in the second, and despise the third.

This leads us to Stephen Colbert’s great comment, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” I’ve long been annoyed that the Brookings Institution, which is studiously non-partisan and non-ideological in the sense that science is non-ideological, is now referred to in the media as a liberal think tank. It is supposedly the liberal counter to the conservative Heritage Foundation. But I guess in a deeper sense, both groups provide justifications for the two ideologies.

But what’s important here is that conservative intellectuals are something other than what they claim. Liberal intellectuals are really intellectuals. They really are looking at and for the facts. Conservative intellectuals are engaged in apologetics. They do various things in this regard such as cherry picking and often outright distortion. I run into this with libertarians, who are by far the most honest of the conservatives. They almost always try to make practical claims for their beliefs. It is generally easy to show that the claims don’t hold up. And then they retreat to what they really think, which is that it is immoral for collectives to interfere with individual decisions. And that’s fine! We can argue about that. But most conservatives will never admit that their ideology has no interest in creating a better society as a practical matter.

Chait applies this notion of liberal ideology to say that Ezra Klein’s new Vox venture is rightly seen as ideological. And I accept that in the context of Chait’s article. But it is only ideological in a sense that conservatives won’t admit to: it is fact based. So I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to take Colbert’s comment as true as long as conservatives continue to argue that their preferred policies are based on real world results. If they want to have an honest debate, they can depend upon getting no more than 20% of the vote. After they do that, I’ll be more than willing to admit that all my facts are ideological in nature.

Otherwise Chait’s argument is simple relativism: NASA and the Flat Earth Society are equally ideological. And in a narrow sense, that’s true. But it isn’t that interesting. In the end, what matters is what works. The NASA mode leads to satellite communications and cancer treatments. The Flat Earth Society leads to witch burning. The partisan divide is clear enough. But I don’t think such distinctions mean all that much. And I think Chait would agree.


I’ve been really impressed with the work that Vox has done so far. It is really worth checking out.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Facts Are Ideological if Cons Admit It

  1. I see Chait’s argument as a bit different. Let me construct an exsmple:

    The town of White Feather has an aging public library — it’s a fire hazard, to be honest, the electrical system seems to date back to Andrew Carnegie. And an element of the townsfolk — call then Democrats — would like to build a modern larger replacement with space to teach schoolkids about Indians and astronauts and modern dance and … just any number of goodies. And a group of the more settled people in the town — Republicasn — object to this. It would be costly. We have Amazon.com these days and don’t need libraries anymore (if we ever did), we certainly don’t space set aside for "art" and "modern dance" and other queer notions — what’s next? Sex education for the kiddies?

    There’s a split in attitudes, I’m trying to say. So the Town Council brings in a set of outside consultants, who are knowledgeable about libraries and neutral about small town politics, who will Settle the Issue. Objective data-driven experts — call them Ezra Klein Associates. And after several months, EKA turns in a report and a 100,000 bill and disappears from the scene.

    And the long awaited report contains preliminary sketches for three types of library of different size and features, for three different budgets and planning approachers (they all require tax increases), EKA recommends option 2, and adds that road and sewage improvements will also need to considered.

    Nice concise report. It’s a library that could be built and could be afforded and would be a credit to the town. All the Deemocrats praise it to the hilt and wonder why the Republicans can’t appreciate the excellent work that went into the document. Now White Feather truly knows what to do!

    The Republicans, of course, are grumpy and don’t like the report at all. They die and go their graves convinced that EKA was a stinking liberal outfit that let the crooks on the Town Council bankrupt what used to bea pretty nice little town. Which isn’t so, but you can see their point.

    TL, DR — This is sort of what I saw in Chait.

  2. @mike shupp – I loved that! Ezra Klein Associates. And that’s [i]just[/i] what they would do too! It made me laugh. You lay out what’s going on much more simply than Chait.

    I don’t disagree with you: that’s what I got from Chait’s article too. The point I’m making is that the Republicans (not really the base; my issue is with the opinion makers) wouldn’t admit that they just don’t want to spend money on something that mostly benefits the poor. So we would be treated to arguments about how libraries actually [i]reduce[/i] reading among poor children and so on. And that’s where I see see hypocrisy: Republican opinion leaders not being willing to admit to what they really think.

    As it is, Republican voters are far more reasonable. As I recall, over half of them are for raising the minimum wage. And the elites know this and realize that if they came right out and admitted what they truly believed, half their voters would abandon them.

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