Perry, parties, and pragmatism

This fascinating clip made the rounds yesterday, and with good reason. To get a sense of how Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) evaluates evidence, it’s an illustrative three minutes.

I can’t find a full transcript, but to offer a flavor, the clip shows a reporter passing along a question from the audience to the governor: “Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs, when they don’t seem to be working? In fact, I think we [in Texas] have the third-highest teen-pregnancy rate in the country right now.” Perry responds, “Abstinence works.”

So, the reporter tries again. “But we have the third-highest teen teen-pregnancy rate among all states in the country. The questioner’s point is, it doesn’t seem to be working.” The governor answers again, “It — it works.” Perry then spends two-and-a-half minutes on a meandering answer that doesn’t really make any sense.

The problem here isn’t just that Perry has the wrong answer. The more meaningful problem is that Perry doesn’t seem to know how to even formulate an answer. He starts with a proposition in his mind (abstinence-only education is effective), and when confronted with evidence that the proposition appears false (high teen-pregnancy rates), the governor simply hangs onto his belief, untroubled by evidence. As Jon Chait put it, Perry seems to struggle “even to think in empirical terms.”

To understand the larger dynamic here, consider Paul Waldman’s sharp observation: “[T]he difficulty he has here comes from the fact that his stance on sex education is about 95 percent moral and 5 percent practical. He gets forced to confront the practical question, and he does so in such a bumbling way because he keeps trying to turn the practical question into a moral one…. He doesn’t have a practical argument because he’s probably never thought about it in those terms, and doesn’t much care.”

That sounds right to me. In general, conservatism isn’t pragmatic because policy outcomes aren’t the goal. Indeed, they’re largely irrelevant. As we’ve seen in too many instances, Republicans aren’t principally concerned with solving problems; their goals are ideological.

In a case like education and lessons on sexual health, the left tends to look at this in terms of results: what works in preventing teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases? For the right, the question is philosophical: what’s consistent with their morality?

The exchange in the clip is amusing because it makes Perry look foolish, but it actually offers a peek behind the curtain: the right believes programs work, even when they don’t work, so long as ideological goals are being met. Real-world implications are meaningless.

Postscript: Just as an aside, Perry also believes public-school science classes should present students with both science and religion, assuming young people are “smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Here’s a radical idea: maybe Perry should consider a similar approach to sex-ed?