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Thornton Hall

The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

The Ideology Of Wrong: Reaganism

Thoughts about how the GOP believes a bunch of falsehoods inspired by a recent Rush Limbaugh rant wherein he indicated his belief that before Obamacare, the birth control pill was financed by women through a pay as you go system whereby more sex equals higher cost (I'm not making this up).


Pop quiz

Short Answer:
State a belief of the Republican Party in a sentence that isn't either empirically false or vague pablum.

Example 1: "Too much Government is the problem."

Wrong. That claim is false. Unemployment, hunger, expensive health care, expensive college, inequality, climate change, etc--not a single one remotely caused by big government.[1]

Example 2: "Too much government is bad."

Wrong. This statement is a "values" statement and therefore subject to the vague pablum test. It fails. To pass the pablum test, a "political value" must give clues to how a party member would vote on an issue (any issue). But without any reference to the current state of affairs, the statement offers zero guidance on whether a Republican would be in favor of more or less government than the status quo.


I honestly can't think of anything.

End of Quiz


Upon closer inspection, all potential correct answers turn out to be outdated. A few attempts:

  1. Reform should be accomplished through the slow evolution of institutions rather than revolution. Revolution causes unnecessary suffering.
  2. Government spending on infrastructure enables businesses to expand the economy and generate tax revenues in excess of the original costs.
  3. Individuals must be held responsible for their actions; anonymous political speech is cowardly and anti-democratic.

Traditional conservatives would embrace all three statements above. The GOP in 2013 is officially opposed to every single one.

Two Sources Of Confusion: Media Word Choice Problems

The goal here is to highlight two sources of confusion that are the heart of the mass media narrative of the current political moment:

  1. Calling a position "ideological" suggests that it represents a values choice. For instance: there is no "right or wrong answer" in the debate over the "proper size of government." But the crux of the current impasse is that not only are these "values" actually empirical claims, they are empirical claims that are demonstrably false.
  2. Calling the Tea Party "conservative" suggests that they occupy a legitimate place on the ideological spectrum that was previously occupied by Nixon[2] or Goldwater. But apart from advocating state sponsored Christianity and the "natural" origins of Money Class privileges, it is very hard to identify anything "conservative" about the Tea Party. They truly represent the "warm and inexperienced enthusiasts" despised by both Burke and Buckley.

Call It "Reaganism" and don't call it an "ideology"

Perhaps we should stop calling the views of the GOP "conservative ideology". A better name would be "Reaganism" and "Reaganist positions" because that's where a lot of these false ideas entered the GOP platform. 

Empirically false positions that characterize Reaganism:

Wrong about climate change ("Trees cause more pollution than automobiles.")

Wrong about health care: dollar for dollar ours is the worst in the world, not the best.

Wrong about economic effects of immigration (Reagan actually was on the other side of this one).

Wrong about divorce causing poverty (It's almost certainly the other way around. Alternatively, it could be that being a Republican voter in the South causes divorce.)

Wrong about stimulative effect of tax cuts.

Wrong about sex education leading to sex.

Wrong about causes of crime.

Wrong about guns killing people.

Wrong about the causes of inflation.

Wrong about the effects of inflation.

Wrong about the value of balanced budgets.

Wrong about the level of manageable Federal Debt.

Wrong about the direction of the deficit (it's actually shrinking).

Wrong about religious freedom and contraception (arguably a genuine "values" issue, but the applicable case law on the question of employers and the contraception coverage mandate is actually as black and white as anything in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence).

Wrong about private schools (controlling for income they actually do worse than public schools).

Wrong about safety net effects on willingness to work (unemployment benefits extend average time unemployed by a day or two and have no effect on overall rate).


1. There's an argument that inequality is down to government tax policy and that the way we do financial aid fuels college cost inflation. But the solutions in both cases are almost certainly more, not less, government intervention.

2. Nixon was not actually a representative of the "conservative" wing of the GOP. Not only wasn't he conservative by Tea Party standards, but not by 1970s standards, either.

NYT: Thornton was right

Winning Ideas