By John Greenwald
(NOTE: This was originally published on Politico on March 11, 2009. John is a member of the Gotham team.)
President Barack Obama’s sweeping plans to restart the economy and expand the federal role in education, health care and energy will either backfire, prove futile or destroy American values. Or maybe all three at once.
Sound familiar? It should, because these conservative lines of attack have been around for centuries in one form or another. Economist Albert O. Hirschman mined hundreds of years of right-wing polemics to show this in his 1991 book, “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” which sheds a revealing light on today’s political discourse.
Any reform can have both good and bad consequences, and which will prevail is uncertain at best. Yet both die-hard advocates and opponents of new policies tend to profess absolute knowledge of their outcomes and thereby create what Hirschman calls a “dialogue of the deaf” in which neither side hears the other.
Hirschman, now a 93-year-old professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., uses the neglected art of rhetorical analysis to expose standard conservative arguments as hoary “contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and deliberation impossible.” He says the same holds true for knee-jerk liberal calls for government action. These contraptions come in three flavors, which Hirschman terms “jeopardy,” “perversity” and “futility.”
Take Rush Limbaugh’s claim that if Obama succeeds in getting “nationalized health care,” it will mean “the end of America as we have known it.” Limbaugh leveled this charge in a recent interview with fellow conservative talk show host Sean Hannity. The dire warning was a textbook example of complaints that a new course of action will have disastrous consequences — Hirschman’s jeopardy argument. Nineteenth-century British conservatives used the same rhetoric to oppose expanding the right to vote to the commercial and industrial classes on the grounds that it would jeopardize good government.
Limbaugh restated his point recently in an address to the National Conservative Political Action Committee, televised by Fox News. What is so strange about wanting Obama to fail, Limbaugh asked his cheering audience, “if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?”
For another form of conservative argument, consider the refusal of a handful of Republican governors to accept money from the $787 billion stimulus to extend unemployment benefits to more people. The defiant governors say this will force them to raise taxes to continue coverage when the stimulus runs out, which will in turn drive employers out of the state and worsen joblessness — the exact opposite of what Washington intended.
This is clearly a minority view, since most governors are delighted to get the money. And if a recovery is under way when the stimulus expires, the extra coverage will no longer be needed. But the unhappy governors nicely illustrate Hirschman’s perversity argument, which asserts that progressive policies always boomerang. To insist on this in all cases, however, is like claiming that seat belts and speed limits increase traffic accidents by making drivers less vigilant.
The libertarian Cato Institute launched another type of attack in a full-page ad in The Washington Post and elsewhere that challenged the need for aggressive government programs to jump-start the economy. Hundreds of economists signed the January broadside, which prescribed tax cuts and less, rather than more, federal spending. The economists offered the failure of government policies to lift the country out of the Depression or Japan out of its 1990s slump as proof that new programs won’t work, either.
This invokes Hirschman’s principle of futility: the notion that proposed actions will crack up against a law of nature that negates them. But this assumes that the cases are precisely parallel and that policymakers will simply ape what was done during the Depression. It also ignores the lasting benefits of New Deal legislation, including Social Security, federal deposit insurance and the minimum wage.
Is there any hope of moving beyond the dialogue of the deaf? Columnist David Brooks recently took a step in that direction in a New York Times piece that invoked another side of the futility argument. Brooks said Obama’s agenda seems doomed from the start because governments aren’t smart enough to engineer large-scale social and economic programs that work. But for the good of the country, Brooks added, he hopes Obama can prove him wrong.
This was a stab at putting aside what Hirschman calls “the rhetoric of intransigence,” which finds conservatives and liberals “on the lookout for arguments that kill.” By opening our eyes to these rhetorical practices, Hirschman hopes to replace the dialogue of the deaf with a more constructive and “democracy-friendly” discourse.
John Greenwald is a former senior writer for Time magazine.
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