Jonathan Chait

What Conservative Epistemic Closure Means

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Ross Douthat jumps into the debate over whether the conservative movement is moving toward epistemic closure. His take is worth reading, but unfortunately, he answers the wrong question:

[Y]ou’ll find a pretty lively debate about everything from  financial reform to health care to taxes, with plenty of room for diversity and disagreement and heterodoxy. I’m not going to argue that this is a golden age of conservative domestic policy, exactly, but I do think that the end of the Bush administration has opened up space for a lot of interesting conversations, and allowed some impressive younger thinkers come to fore.

Epistemic closure isn't about agreeing on everything. I'll outsource my reply here to Jonathan Bernstein, who was responding to Jonah Goldberg, who made the same erroneous response as Douthat:

The accusation isn't that conservatives all reach the same conclusions about everything, nor is it that conservatives are excessively politically correct, nor is it that conservatives demand strict adherence to a set of ideas if one is to remain a conservative in good standing.  It's rather about information, and what counts as evidence about the real world.  Sanchez's point is that if one only gets information from a narrow set of sources that feed back into each other but do not engage beyond themselves, that one will have a closed mind (not his phrase, by the way) regardless of what one does with that information.

In other words, the problem is that the movement has created its own subculture, and within this subculture, only information from sources controlled by the movement is considered trustworthy or even worth paying attention to. This can be the case even if conservatives disagree about the proper conservative policy.

Conservative apostate Bruce Bartlett offers up an example. In 2003, he provided some explosive quotes that served as the lead of a damning New York Times magazine cover story about the Bush administration. Here's what happened next: 

A few days after the article appeared I was at some big conservative event in Washington. I assumed that my conservative friends would give me a lot of crap for what I said. But in fact no one said anything to me--and not in that embarrassed/averting-one's-eyes sort of way. They appeared to know nothing about it.

After about half an hour I decided to start asking people what they thought of the article. Every single one gave me the same identical answer: I don't read the New York Times. Moreover, the answers were all delivered in a tone that suggested I was either stupid for asking or that I thought they were stupid for thinking they read the Times.

I should note that Douthat himself is clearly not part of this problem -- he does not operate from the assumption that information from the "liberal media" should be dismissed out of hand. But the problem does afflict significant numbers of conservative elites and probably an even larger share of the Republican base.

 

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