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“BipartisanThink” — the madness of symmetry that fuels the Tea Party

February 22, 2013

Jonathan Chait in New York magazine outlines more cases of “BipartisanThink” as defined by Matthew Yglesias in “BipartisanThink and the Principle of Seriousness.” Here’s the definition in MoneyBox at Slate, with more on how it works:

A certain strand of Beltway political thought has a problem with the budget deficit. By definition the failure of the parties to agree to a balanced deficit reduction package is equally the fault of both Democrats and Republicans. That’s a core element of BipartisanThink. At the same time, deficit hawks actively want to get politicans to agree with their prescriptions. So the risk always exists that the hawks will get what they want and someone will agree with them. That’s what’s happened with Barack Obama and most of the Democratic congressional leadership. At that point, a paradox occurs since again, by definition both parties are equally to blame.

Jonathan Chait notes that the Washington Post editorial page has seized the bull by the horns today, blaming both sides equally for the sequester standoff, even though the Post’s editorial board dislikes the GOP’s proposed sequester offsets—deep cuts in programs to poor people—and favors the Democrats’ proposed sequester offsets—cuts in farm subsidies and the “Buffett rule.” But where Chait sees illogic, I see the exploitation of an important principle. It involves the use of the word “serious,” as in, “neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position.” By invoking the Principle of Seriousness, a way is provided out of the box …

Once you embrace the Principle of Seriousness, the way is clear for rigorous BipartisanThink.

Yglesias provides further scenarios in BipartisanThink Takes a Counterfactual Turn.

In David Brooks, Obama Plan Birther, Repents!  Chait shows us how the paradox of bipartisan symmetry winds up with absolutist extremes.

As a general rule, the craziest, most rabid, most provably false political ideas come from the political extremes. They flourish within small ideological subcultures that lock out opposing viewpoints. But occasionally such weird myths can be found not on the fringes but in the center.

A virulent example of this has emerged during the latest iteration of the fiscal debate. Advocates of what Matthew Yglesias calls “BipartisanThink” have found themselves trapped between two impulses. On the one hand, they fervently believe that the country’s most vital priority is to pass a plan to reduce the deficit through a mix of cuts to retirement programs and reduced tax deductions. On the other hand, they believe with equal fervor that the two parties are equally to blame for the country’s problems in general, and the failure to pass such a plan in particular.

Their problem is that one party agrees with them completely, and the other rejects them. This creates a paradox between the two mental tentpoles of BipartisanThink. The solution is to simply wish away the facts, thus bringing them into line with reality.

Life is asymmetric; so is balance. The nuanced positions and shades of meaning that David Brooks and the BipartisanThink cohort perhaps aspire to are not to be found in trying to close the circle with pure symmetry. They will only wind up increasingly excluding the reality of what is needed. They become the cold opposite of moderation, opening the back door to fanaticism. The responsibility is almost scary, because without these “moderates,” how would the mad Tea Party (including its so-called regular folks) ever get any traction?

For another example of this unfunny phenomenon of myth and denial of reason, here is Paul Krugman via Mark Thoma, where the various terms like “Principle of Seriousness” and “BipartisanThink” are added to “symmetry”:

As always, many pundits want to portray the deadlock … as a situation in which both sides are at fault, and in which both should give ground. But there’s really no symmetry here. A middle-of-the-road solution would presumably involve a mix of spending cuts and tax increases; well, that’s what Democrats are proposing, while Republicans are adamant that it should be cuts only.

Words almost fail to describe the paradox. New ones most welcome! within reason, or not. Time for a break.

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