Congressional Republicans Didn't Follow Their Party To Nonsensical Economic Policies — They Led It

September 06, 2011 2:15 pm ET — Jamison Foser

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein offers an answer to a question I posed last week: "Why Did Republicans Stop Acknowledging The Economic Importance Of Demand?" Klein writes:

Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale's Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. [...]

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: "When reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not."

This is a reasonable explanation of the hostility Republican voters, and even rank-and-file freshman Republican congressmen, feel towards the concept of economic stimulus. The average voter can't be expected to have a sophisticated understanding of every complex public policy question that comes along; it's natural for them to take their cues from people they believe share their values and general approach to policy. That's inherent in the whole concept of being a leader in a party or ideological movement: Leadership.

But it isn't as satisfying as an explanation of Grover Norquist's behavior, or Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) or House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) or Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-ME), or that of other longtime Republican officeholders and conservative leaders. They didn't follow their party to this nonsensical economic position — they led it there. And they didn't do it solely because President Obama advocated a stimulus package: If GOP leaders simply did the opposite of everything Obama does, they would have spent the two years since the stimulus saying that we should forget about deficits for now and focus instead on massive new stimulus. They would've lashed out at the creation of a presidential deficit commission and demanded a jobs commission instead.

In my post last week, I noted: "[D]uring the Bush administration, Republicans had a political interest in improving the economy, but during the Obama administration, they have political incentive to thwart economic progress." For people like Ryan and Norquist, it's hard to believe that political interest doesn't play a role. That doesn't mean they consciously think, "I shall sabotage the economy for political gain" while twirling their mustaches. People don't have to consciously think about such incentives to be affected by them, just as it's likely that senators' personal financial situation affects their policy approach, even if it's unlikely that they ever actively think anything like "I'll oppose lifting the payroll tax cap because it would cost me $4,000 a year." It's true that people tend to follow their party rather than independently forming their own policy views — but that doesn't let the leaders of the party off the hook for the way they lead it.

In the end, as Klein notes, the debate between "motivated skepticism" and "economic sabotage" on the part of Republicans is a "distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go." And that's true: Whether Republicans are acting out of conscious or subconscious malice, or just following their party, they're helping to prolong the worst jobs crisis since the great depression, and ignoring their own previous economic ideas in doing so. Maybe that's the result of malice and opportunism, or maybe it's a sign that they are incapable of thinking for themselves. Either way, their behavior should disqualify them from being taken seriously as leaders or principled thinkers by the public, the media, and their opposition. It isn't just that their current policy positions are bad for the country: The way they arrived at those positions is fundamentally unserious.