The Conservative War on Knowledge

The far right is vehemently opposed to any evidence that conflicts with its ideology, writes Eric Alterman.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) gestures during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. (AP/Steve Helber)
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) gestures during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. (AP/Steve Helber)

The United States finds itself in an odd political predicament. One of its two major political parties is increasingly dominated by a faction of people that simply denies those aspects of reality it finds to be inconvenient and demands that any candidate who wishes to gain its support does so as well.

How else to explain the fact that while 97 percent of credentialed climate scientists concur that global warming is both extremely dangerous and caused by human activity, every one of the 21 Republican candidates who ran for Senate in 2010 denied that this could be the case?

When queried as to how it was possible that the scientific consensus could be wrong, while people with no particular knowledge of science could be right, they muttered something about a global “conspiracy,” though not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to back that claim and the very idea of such a thing is comical in its ridiculousness.

As evidenced by the global warming “debate,” Tea Party-style conservatives have a problem with reality. More than that, though, they have a problem with knowledge, particularly honest scholarship that leads to knowledge, as the more voters know about a given issue, the more they find the far right’s purposeful ignorance inconsistent with their interests, even though it might be flattering to voters’ vanity.

This conservative “war against knowledge” is not exactly a new phenomenon. Way back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration began making noise about defunding government support for social science through the National Science Foundation. As a result the scholars banded together to form the Consortium of Social Science Associations to lobby to save it.

Now conservatives have revived this effort to defund the entire National Science Foundation and, barring that, cut all government funds for political science research.

These same right-wingers saw fit to kill off the Office of Technology Assessment whose purpose, from 1972 to 1995, was to provide Congress with objective analyses of complex scientific and technical issues. The kinds of criticism of the agency could be found in a 1980 book, Fat City, by the right-wing author Donald Lambro, and so it was abolished by conservatives in Congress under the spell of Newt Gingrich’s "Contract with America."

Such cutting-off-one’s-nose-to-spite-one’s-face-ism appears to be the sin qua non of modern conservatism, and is of a piece with recent conservative efforts to try to kill off the American Community Survey—a crucial government data collection that has existed in various manifestations since 1850.

As Catherine Rampell of The New York Times Economix blog explains, it “tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on.”

The survey, which is presently attached to the census, is used to figure out how roughly $400 billion in government funds is to be sensibly spent each year. So why get rid of it? How can anyone oppose a tiny investment that ensures so large a pile of money is spent on the basis of good data?

According to one conservative legislator, Daniel Webster, the survey “intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” adding, “this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”  

The fellow does not appear to know that a “random” survey is a scientific survey, any more than he is aware that a few banks might have benefited from some regulation leading up to the economic crisis of 2008, or that EPA regulations have ensured that Americans are breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water as a result of the very “regulations” his ideology abhors.

Rampell notes that law enforcement relies on the data produced by the survey to predict crimes like methamphetamine production, and private industry benefits from its collection as well, which is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the National Association of Home Builders all support its continuation. 

What’s more, it makes the census less expensive to carry out. Get rid of it and we would have to spend significantly more money on following up the original census to ensure the most accurate possible answers. 

This is unlikely, however, as not only do these same conservatives wish to cut funding for the survey, but they also want to reduce funding for the census, while at the same time preventing the scholars who assemble the data for the government from using basic statistical sampling methods to improve its accuracy.

Clearly the result will be taxpayer money spent in ignorance and hence a far greater percentage of it will be wasted. Some observers think this is the point. Conservatives who oppose all government spending may wish to undermine whatever programs remain as part of their argument to allow the wealthy to keep as much of their income as possible rather than seeing any of it go to government programs that either provide opportunities for all Americans, reduce inequality, or assuage some of the pain and suffering of the indigent who cannot fend for themselves.

Then again, some of them really may be as foolish as they seem. Remember, the person picked by the Tea Party movement to represent it nationally in opposition to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), thinks that the famous “shot heard around the world in Lexington and Concord" credited with beginning the American Revolution was fired in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts. She thinks “the very founders that wrote” the U.S. Constitution “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” even though they agreed to extend it. She thinks something called the "Hoot-Smalley Tariff," allegedly passed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, caused the Great Depression, ignoring the fact that the 1930 Smoot-Halley Tariff was passed under Republican President Herbert Hoover together with the fact that the Great Depression was already in full swing when FDR was elected years later.  

One could go on, and I will. There was that “interesting coincidence” Rep. Bachmann professed to discover during the swine flu scare at the beginning of President Obama’s term—“that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter.” Actually, “interesting” or not, it was under Republican President Gerald Ford.

OK, just one more. Global warming, says climatologist Bachmann, is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax."

As Bachmann’s example demonstrates, a mind can be a terrible thing to waste. But conservatives apparently prefer to throw away taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars rather than confront the fact that sometimes—even most times—reality does not conform to right-wing ideology.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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