President Obama doesn’t really need to be Superman to win a second term, says Timothy Egan, in a New York Times op ed piece. He does have “Republican craziness” to run against. One of the examples of this craziness Egan cites is the doubt Gov. Rick Perry is trying to cast on the adequacy of evolutionary theory. Here is the relevant clip from Egan’s column.
In the same week that scientists announced the discovery of fossils 3.4 billion years old, evidence of explosive growth of early life through evolution, Rick Perry showed he will take his science from the Bible. He called evolution “a theory that’s out there.” If he thinks it is just a theory, he should get last year’s flu shot.
This post isn’t about evolution. It’s about a civic virtue for which I have not yet accepted a name. I want to go little further than “decency” but not as far as “generosity.” I do believe that the quality of public discourse suffers when the general level of political argument takes on the characteristics that were once associated only with the party’s flamethrowers. Everyone knew that James Carville (he wasn’t called “the Ragin’ Cajun” entirely as a joke) was going to make extreme and very colorful statements about Republicans. At the time, he could do that and there could exist, back in mainstream political discourse, the mutual courtesy that each combatant and his or her backers extended to the others.
We are now facing a time when the normal course of public debate is more like the James Carville kind. I can understand that it feels good to do it that way. Your opponents have done something outrageous and it doesn’t seem out of line to nail that action with an outrageous accusation. The real difficulty is, I rely here on evolutionary theory, outrageous political expressions compete very successfully with more moderate expressions and drive them to the few niches in the political world where they can survive. The real world, the world outside the theme parks, would be dominated by the most extreme, the most caustic, views, the slowest to be constrained by actual facts. Has Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke committed treason in making more money available during the economic recession? Treason?
The question that lies at the heart of Egan’s column is this: Just how stupid is Gov. Perry? Is he so stupid—has he taken his opposition to evolutionary theory so far—that he believes flu viruses don’t adapt to flu vaccines? No. He isn’t. What Eagan has done is to create a huge category called EVOLUTION and to put into that category not only the large and politically volatile question of whether humans evolved from apes but also the undisputed question of whether viruses adapt to anti-viruses. Once the huge category is created, every question represents the whole category. The most contentious questions about human origins are now “the same as” the least contentious questions about developments in pharmacology. That is the device that Eagan relies on to ridicule Gov. Perry, implying that Perry doesn’t understand the need for an annually modified vaccine.
I almost passed by Egan’s sniping because making fun of Gov. Perry feels so good, but that good feeling collided with a bad feeling I have been having more and more lately. Reasonable policy arguments are harder to find. There are still reasonable wonkish discussions in think tanks, certainly, but anyone who wants to apply the conclusions reached in those discussions to political debate is going to have to find some way to make them into a slur on his opponents. Back in the good old days, the biggest challenge in using think tank discussions was making them understandable to the general public. Now you have to make them vicious or they don’t really help you. I really don’t think they can be both.
I know that I am risking sounding like the social worker in West Side Story who didn’t know anything about the Jets or the Sharks, but wanted them to mix together at the dance and make nice with each other. And I know that if one of the major parties turned off the flamethrowers, the first effect would be that all its officeholders would be fried by the other party’s flamethrowers.
Still, here are two simple truths.
The partisan flamethrowers are sustained by people who like it and think it is justified. Those are the people who are going to have to change their views. It may be pleasant and it may be justified, but it leads to pointless policy debate and ineffective government.
We can have this kind of public debate and continue to “make policy” by rejecting Extreme Proposals 1—10. Every potentially ineffective idea can be skewered in public and its proponents called traitors to the republic. I know we can do that because we actually are doing that. What we can’t do it establish a policy goal and work toward achieving it.
It seems to me that a democracy that can’t do that is going to go the way of last year’s flu virus.