The problem for the left is that they do not have a lot of interaction with conservatives, whose intellects are often disparaged, ideas are openly mocked, and intentions regularly questioned. Conservative ideas rarely make it onto the pages of most middle- and high-brow publications of news and opinion the left frequents. So, liberals regularly find themselves surprised when their ideas face pushback.
I think that is exactly what happened with Obamacare. The attitude of President Obama (a former con law lecturer at the University of Chicago, no less!), Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid was very much that they are doing big, important things to help the American people, why wouldn’t that be constitutional? No less an important Democratic leader as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee cited the (nonexistent) “good and welfare clause” to justify the mandate.
Having no intellectual sympathy for the conservative criticism of this view, they rarely encountered it on the news programs they watch, the newspapers they read every day, or the journals they peruse over the weekends. Instead, they encountered a steady drumbeat of fellow liberals echoing Kagan’s attitude: it’s a boatload of money, what the heck is the problem?
Then, insofar as they encountered conservative pushback, they mostly ignored it.
(Via Andrew Sullivan).
Let me say this up front, to spare folks from submitting comments that I’m not going to post, because I don’t want the thread to go down the usual path: <b> Cost’s point is not about right-wing victimology.</b> So please, save the “conservatives are always whining” pushback. He is describing what in his judgment is the reason liberal legal analysts were surprised by questioning from conservative justices in the hearings this week. I haven’t followed the Obamacare/SCOTUS story closely enough to make a call on Cost’s analysis, but I think his general point about liberal epistemic closure is pretty solid.
Of course many conservatives suffer from epistemic closure too. It seems to be a particular hazard of our times right now. If you cannot distance yourself from your own worldview enough to consider what the world might look like through the eyes of someone who fundamentally disagrees with you, you may find yourself at a disadvantage that may cost you plenty one day. For example, in their own distinct ways, both American liberals and American conservatives struggle to imagine how people in other countries, cultures, and civilizations do not necessarily value what we do in the same way; we have a serious weakness for believing that inside every foreigner is an American struggling to get out.
Liberals love to make the argument that “diversity” — by which they mean racial heterogeneity, gender parity, and suchlike — is good in and of itself, and useful, because it prevents epistemic closure that could hinder the performance of the company or institution. At least that latter point is taken for gospel within American newsrooms. It never seems to occur to the diversity czars that achieving true diversity would require ideological and cultural diversity. Of course it’s problematic to hire people based on their political, religious, and cultural opinions, but then if you won’t do that, you are lying to yourself when you claim that you have achieved diversity in any meaningful sense. In terms of creative thought, you may have only run the gamut from A to B, but if you tell yourself that you have achieved open-mindedness, and that you have a perspective well-informed by a plethora of perspectives, you may be deceiving yourself.
It’s interesting, though, how little effect being hit upside the head by reality in these matters affects people’s thinking. On the right, I sincerely believed the debacle of the Iraq War would compel a radical rethinking of conservative geopolitical strategy. It did not. I believed the debacle of the economic crash would cause the entire political class to rethink our financial system and its regulations. Nope, not really.
UPDATE: Relatedly, here’s Julian Sanchez:
It starts to seem, as Albert Camus once put it, that we’ve made the mind into an armed camp—in which not only politicians and legislative proposals, but moral philosophies, artworks, even scientific theories, have to wear the insignia of one or the other army. This obviously oversimplifies—a taxonomy with two categories is not particularly rich—but also obscures the internal faultlines within each domain in a way that’s guaranteed to undermine our understanding. We’re at the point where people are morally certain about the empirical facts of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on the basis of their general political worldviews. This isn’t exactly surprising—we are tribal creatures who like master narratives—but it feels as though it’s gotten more pronounced recently, and it’s almost certainly making us all stupider.
UPDATE.2: A DC lawyer friend went to the SCOTUS hearing, and e-mails to say:
I waited in the lawyer’s line (those who are members of the Supreme Court Bar) from about 6:30 on Tuesday morning (the argument was at 10). Two liberal attorneys were behind me talking about the case and it was amazing to hear them parrot back Greenhouse’s words. One of these two gentlemen, said something like, “Greenhouse is right; there really aren’t two sides on this. One side [the pro-Obamacare argument] has an argument and the other side doesn’t.” I stood there totally bemused. I wanted to say to them (and to Greenhouse and Lithwick): “Yes, the Supreme Court took this case because it thinks the argument for Obamacare is a total slam dunk — not.” I have no idea what will happen in this case, but the inability of liberals even to conceive that there might be good faith and intelligent arguments for the challenge to Obamacare, to mandatory contraceptive coverage, and a whole slew of other things really bespeaks an epistemic closure that is almost absolute. (I agree with you that a similar closure, especially with regard to war, natural resources, and sundry other topics, exists on the right. But I know few conservatives who really think everyone thinks like they do and that their arguments are totally obvious.)
UPDATE.3: Clark Stooksbury thinks Cost is full of beans.