The consequences of intellectual bankruptcy

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY…. Long-time readers may recall a discussion we had back in December, about the quality of the debate over health care reform. It was obvious at the time that the meaningful, interesting disputes weren’t between conservatives and liberals, but between liberals and other liberals.

It’s not that the right remained silent; it’s that they offered arguments that no serious person could find credible. Consider, just off the top of your head, the most prominent concerns raised by opponents of the Affordable Care Act. What comes to mind? “Death panels.” “Socialism.” “Government takeover.”

It was the biggest domestic policy fight in a generation, but most of the policy debate was spent debunking transparent, child-like nonsense. The left approached the debate with vibrancy, energy, and seriousness. The right thought it was fascinating to talk about the number of pages in the legislation.

Making matters worse, the quality of the discourse on health care wasn’t especially unusual. We endured a mind-numbing debate over economic recovery efforts because Republicans weren’t prepared for a serious argument. We can’t discuss Wall Street reform because Republicans keep saying “bailout” for no reason. We can’t discuss a climate bill because Republicans reflexively reject the science.

Every major issue has strengths and weaknesses, and every major piece of legislation is subject to legitimate criticism. In 2010, however, the right seems fundamentally unprepared to even have the conversation.

Given all of this, Marc Ambinder asks today whether the right has “gone mad.”

Can anyone deny that the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left? Rachel Maddow’s grilling of administration economic officials. Keith Olbermann’s hectoring Democratic leaders on the public option. Glenn Greenwald’s criticisms of Elena Kagan. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn’s keepin’-them-honest perspectives on health care, the civil libertarian left on detainees and Gitmo. The Huffington Post on derivatives.

I want to find Republicans to take seriously, but it is hard. Not because they don’t exist — serious Republicans — but because, as [Julian] Sanchez and others seem to recognize, they are marginalized, even self-marginalizing and the base itself seems to have developed a notion that bromides are equivalent to policy-thinking, and that therapy is a substitute for thinking.

Ambinder ponders various explanations — the habit of conservatives to take entertainers seriously as political actors, the “incentive structures exist to stomp on dissent and nuance,” the epistemic closure problem in which conservatives ignore news outlets that might tell them what they don’t want to hear — but doesn’t draw a clear conclusion.

In a way, that’s a shame. I was really hoping he’d help me understand how one of the nation’s dominant political parties and the ideology it embraces chose intellectual bankruptcy.