Why the (US) right is always wrong … and how both-sidesists help to ensure this

A decade ago, when the issue of Republican anti-science bias was raised, a common response was to point to attitudes to vaccination, where, it was claimed, Democrats were the anti-science party. I observed at the time that this claim wasn’t justified by the available evidence. A little later, I noted the likelihood of the Republicans becoming anti-vax , a point on have been proved tragically right by the Covid pandemic.

But this case, and many more like it, hasn’t prevented the publication of a continued stream of pieces starting from the premise that “both sides do it”. The latest iteration relates to housing policy, and the claim that Democrats are the party of NIMBYism. For example this piece in The Atlantic by Jerusalem Demsas states

liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.

Demsas is way off the mark[1]. Biden’s infrastructure package included provisions for multi-family housing to be erected in traditionally residential zone. These provisions were vigorously resisted by Republicans, following the lead of Donald Trump, who used racist scaremongering to mobilise opposition.

More generally, the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement is now ascendant among leftists (AOC is a notable example), as well as moderate liberals like Biden. There are still plenty of left and liberal NIMBYs, but it’s Republicans who make NIMBYism a majority view.

Rather than go through this issue in detail, I’m going to propose a meta-theory to explain why Republicans are always wrong, and why they always get a pass from both-sidesists. The central propositions are

(i) Leftist and liberals start from the meta-belief that the right policies will be consistent with empirical evidence
(ii) Republicans and rightwingers start from the meta-belief that “owning the libs” is more important than any policy outcome
(iii) Bothsidesists start from the meta-belief that a situation where half the population is systematically wrong is unthinkable.

Now consider a situation where correct and incorrect beliefs about some policy are initially distributed more or less randomly across the political spectrum. This is the ideal case for bothsidesists who will point out the inconsistencies. But to the extent that their claims are valid, those on the left will gradually reject the beliefs that have been shown to be wrong. At this point, it is necessary for those on the right, not only to hold on to their existing wrong beliefs, but to embrace those that have been abandoned by the left.

It’s easy enough to multiply examples.

The first I noticed was carbon pricing. As long as environmentalists rejected pricing in favor of detailed controls, carbon pricing was popular on the right. But as soon as the case for pricing became widely accepted, the right changed sides. The same was true in more technical debates about the relative merits of carbon taxes and tradeable permits.

The Earned Income Tax Credit was a Reagan initiative, but it is now denounced by the right . Indeed the EITC formed the basis of the “47 per cent pay no tax” talking point popularised by Mitt Romney. Sticking to Romney, his own ‘Romneycare” plan for Massachusetts was the basis for Obama’s much-vilified Affordable Care Act. And so on.

And throughout all of this, bothsidesists have tried, with increasing desperation to find examples of rational thought on the right. But these examples either turn out to be wrong (for example, the claim that nuclear power is a sensible option held back by environmentalists) or are picked up by the left and repudiated by the right.

This process cannot end well. Either political power in the US will end up in the hands of an utterly delusional movement, or the two-party system will collapse, with unpredictable consequences.

fn1. It’s fair to say that policies dating back to the 1970s, backed by liberals, empowered local resistance to developments of all kinds, from polluting industries to expanded provision of housing. But localism is deeply embedded in US culture, both for good and ill.

18 thoughts on “Why the (US) right is always wrong … and how both-sidesists help to ensure this

  1. «because of that deeply embedded localism housing policy is almost entirely non-federal, and many counties and states in the USA have been under Democratic Party control for many decades»

    As to that, a rarely if ever made insight is that despite Democratic Party control of many states for decades, none created a canadian/UK/… style public health care system. The only two cases of something like that have been in recent years Romney’s health system in Massachusetts, copied by Obama nationally, and for a very short period Vermont. Why? I think mostly because of the labor unions being strongly opposed to that, but also because most DNC small donors being “progressive” affluent property owners who already have good health plans through their employers or their businesses.

    an insider even if not a practising politician, wrote realistically»

    Which reminded me of another insider (who used to described himself as “left neoliberal”) describing Obama:

    «his health policy is Mitt Romney’s, his climate policy is John McCain’s, and his foreign policy is George H.W. Bush’s»

    All PASOKified “left” (which really means in many anglo-american polities “whig” right-wing as opposed to “tory” right-wing) parties target as their core constituency “progressive” affluent property owners, even if they accept reluctantly the votes of workers and renters who have nowhere else to go.

  2. Where did bothsideserism come from? The natural state of democracies is partisanship. Independents and undecideds are a small minority in any polity where the demos has a say. People sort themselves into Big-Endians and Little-Endians, and get their information from sources that reinforce that tribal identity. From the start, newspapers fell into an established pattern of partisanship, and have kept to it.

    The short aberration of journalistic neutrality came from radio and television, where bandwidth was initially limited and costs of production high. The fairness doctrine in the USA was a response to a technical production oligopoly. It went away when cable and then the internet removed the bandwidth restriction, and cheap electronics turned every home desk into a basic but workable studio. Murdoch’s partisanship was a return of broadcasting to the natural state of the media; the Murdoch problem is the lack of any moral or political compass beyond self-enrichment, indeed the active nihilism of a super-Cringer.

    The core bipartisans are the journalists, identifying nostalgically with the glory days of Cronkite in the USA, and in the UK with Reith’s elitism. Reith managed to establish a genuinely independent public broadcaster of high standards by a lucky combination of reliably conservative views, great managerial ability, and extreme arrogance – IIRC he thought he should have been Prime Minister instead of running a backwater and was not going to take orders from the likes of Stanley Baldwin. He did not get on with “that bloody s++t Churchill” and was fired from the wartime government in 1942.

  3. James Wimberley, A theoretical motivation for anticipating Bothsideserism is the Hotelling Principle. Two groups competing for a majority of votes “homogenise”.


    Of course there are many reasons for seeing this principal as overly simplified but it does provide a logically sound rationale.

  4. Harry: the Hotelling observation could have some relevance to party formation and competition for votes – though not much, since there is clearly no long-term trend to reasonable centrism. Bothsideserism is a cultural bias or delusion in the media representation of politics, especially when its reality is strongly partisan.

  5. «no long-term trend to reasonable centrism. Bothsideserism is a cultural bias or delusion in the media representation of politics, especially when its reality is strongly partisan.»

    Democrats and Republicans are strongly partisan, but they are both, since Clinton at least, reaganista/neoliberal: the Republicans make a big deal of being somewhat socially “conservative” (somewhat “tory” reaganism), the Democrats of being somewhat socially “progressive” (somewhat “whig” reaganism), but there is a strong bipartisan consensus on mere details like foreign wars and subsidies to FIRE corporations etc., as both parties represent mostly the same economic interests.
    In part this has happened because the Republicans used to represent mostly affluent propertied protestant yankees, and the Democrats poorer non-protestant irish/jewish/italian voters, but the latter groups have joined the propertied middle classes too.
    This is fairly clear from California and New York, where the Democrats have ruled for decades, and where inflating real estate prices and rents and NIMBYsm are prevalent, to the great benefit of affluent middle class Democrat voters and activists.

    A humourist wrote in the 1950s in “How to scrape skies”, a humourful but I reckon still mostly accurate description of USA culture:

    «In England you know for instance that the Labour Party is for the nationalisation of various industries and the Conservatives are against it.
    In America such ideological clashes hardly ever occur. A practical issue may be whether the U.S. should give a large loan to Britain or not. In Siloam Springs (Ark.) the loyal Democratic leader, with an eye on the Jewish inhabitants, may take up an anti-British attitude because of Palestine. In the next village, however, the bank manager’s daughter may have an English fiancé, a former R.A.F. pilot, who is personally very popular and the Democratic Party leader will be inclined to say: ‘Let the poor boy have the dough’. All this may seem very confusing but, in fact, it is quite simple.
    The difference between the two main American parties is very sharp and well defined; it is more marked than the difference between Communists and right wing Democrats in any European coalition government:
    (a) one party is in, the other is out;
    (b) one party wants to stay in and the other tries to get it out.»

    In England New, New Labour is nowadays thatcherite like the Conservatives, but not much has changed in the USA, where the two parties, while having small “one nation” or “social-democratic” fractions, are still ideologically similar on “mere details”, while being strongly partisan on much more important things like pronouns (and who is in office…).

  6. «there is clearly no long-term trend to reasonable centrism»

    To make a long story short, consider some “mere details”:

    * It’s better for “the economy” when it takes 6 months to find a job than when it takes 6 months to fill a vacancy.
    * It’s better for “the economy” when it takes 6 months to find a place to live in than when it takes 6 months to find a tenant.

    Where is the “reasonable centrist” choice? It’s pretty much either-or as to material interests.

    In the bad old days of pre-Reagan “socialism” policy was biased towards taking 6 months to fill a vacancy or find a tenant; in the good times post-Clinton “reasonable centrism” has been defined as aiming towards taking 6 months to find a job or a place to live in.

  7. “The right(US) is always wrong….” nice play with words, JQ.
    Perhaps I misunderstand when I say, the term “both-sidesists” is a label attached to the state of ‘rational thought’ (a “meta belief”), starting with the prior that errors in reasoning or observations are randomly distributed within a population (in the absence of proof to the contrary).
    JQ then describes a possible dynamic for the case where not everybody is ‘rational’ but there are two alternative states, ‘the left’ and ‘the right’, as described in the post under the label ‘meta beliefs’. Since the ‘rational thought’ is also a “meta belief” in this model, the both-sidesists don’t learn that their prior is wrong.

    But the purpose of my post is not to try to constructively participate in this discussion, but rather to wish JQ and all readers a Happy New Year.

    I’ve been quiet on this blogsite for some time because of the consequences of discovering in a painful way that I belong to the relatively small proportion of people who cannot take statins, not even the ‘mildest’ dose to combat slightly elevated cholesterol. I can walk again, including upstairs and downstairs and I smile again. Now I drink oat milk instead of cow milk and I eat what looks like finely cut cardboard with the name psyllium and a few other little changes to my diet.

  8. Ernestine Gross,

    Sorry to hear that. I hope you are feeling better now. Modern medicine has not covered itself in glory. As with all crafts and disciplines under market fundamentalism, the goal has become simply to make money. The evidence for the efficacy of statins seems slim IMHO but I have no medical or science degrees so take my opinion with a glass of plain water.

    As a meta-comment on this topic, I will simply say that I am becoming more a pyrrhonist on most matters. This is not to say I am becoming anti-empirical or anti-science. It is to say that matters where empiricism and science can give clear answers are very limited. The rest becomes an arena of endless contention and speculation.

  9. James Wimberley, The Hotelling model describes the impulses toward homogenisation of offerings by two competing groups. Of course if the model is correct it should describe what happens in the political marketplace. The model is limited – only one divisive issue and only 2 groups doing the competing. But I repeat: It does offer a type of rationale for Bothsidesism.

    John comes close to using exactly this model.

  10. Ernestine, glad you have a diagnosis. And a path back to ? normaility? And, I miss your comments too.

    My “finely cut cardboard” seems fine with a soak + fruit + yoghurt + honey. And I know a person now on a “smoothie + vanilla” diet w vegetables, as they did not / could not eat recommended vege’s. Vanilla masks everything, tricking your taste buds. Good luck.

    Ikon, this Philisospher’s Zone is for you with reference to monism. Yet you said “I am becoming more a pyrrhonist” – which leads to buddhism.

    Many here will also, will appreciate “Conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and fun” with Charles Blattberg, Professor of Political Philosophy, University of Montreal.

    I liked Blattberg’s conceptualization of a conspiracy theory – it is a complete world. A closed system. Easy to spot via a few sensible questions.

    “You don’t have to be stupid to be a conspiracy theorist. Many people who buy into paranoid fantasies about stolen Presidential elections and global Satanic cabals are perfectly sane, well-educated individuals. So why do they fall for these myths? This week we consider the possibility that the attraction is primarily aesthetic, and that the experience is fun. But why the perennial focus on Jews?

    “Guest: Charles Blattberg, Professor of Political Philosophy, University of Montreal

    “Antisemitism and the aesthetic”
    by Charles Blattberg

    Click to access BLAAAT-17.pdf


  11. Good grief, so if I am a monist (a priority or historical monist in the cosmological sense – referring to the real cosmos so far uncovered by science) this makes me an anti-Semite or a candidate for same???

    Good grief (again), I have never read such nonsense in all my life. But I am not getting into contentions about it. Just stating my position flatly.

  12. KT2,

    My statement above is not aimed at you. Squarely aimed at Blattberg’s essay, which if serious is nothing short of bizarre.

  13. Just about OT, a good technical analysis by David Super of the chaos in the GOP majority in the US House. He thinks they won’t be organised enough to create a real debt limit crisis. Serve them right. The contrast between the hapless and not yet elected McCarthy and the superbly professional and iron-willed Pelosi makes bothsides commentary ridiculous. A club player has more chance than that against Djokovic.

  14. Ikon, I knew it would be a dischord for you, esoecially the kast line. I’d appreciate if ever another sandpit, for you to outline a response as on hearing the podcast I was bustng to ask your responses to better realise mine.

    Please dont feel you need to though.

    “But I am not getting into contentions about it. Just stating my position flatly.” is great. No beating around the bush. Thanks.

  15. I am one of the California liberals who believes in local control of planning. (I haven’t read the Atlantic piece yet, but I fervently doubt I will learn anything from it.)

    First of all, homelessness isn’t solely caused by our (admittedly horridly expensive) housing market, or even mainly caused by it. Can I prove this? No.

    Having observed all the local nonprofit leaders and pols try to tapdance past this issue though, let’s just say I am a skeptic. We have many thousands of very expensive vacant units, since that is what “the market” builds. And, they’ve been doing it gangbusters here for years. The California Democratic Party is pretty much all neolibs on the big issues. So, sorry but you are all wet on this issue. (They will send people small checks now and then, for this or that – but they don’t ever really bite the hand or even growl at it.)

    Also, perhaps up to a third of the unhoused people are *not* from here, though again, providers are in fear and denial about this, so, from what I can tell they try not to know or say anything about this.

    What that means is, the “red” areas of the country are sending us their poor people, then making fun of our inept pols (to be fair, most of them are incompetent imo).

    I would expect as an economist, you are against free riders and those who externalize costs onto others? Me too!

    When you combine anemic federal government funding of housing with a drug crisis and our seriously cr*p health system – especially for the mentally ill – well, this is what happens. And, don’t forget all the unsophisticated homeowners who were sold dangerous loans before the Great Recession, many of whom were people of color, which was probably not an accident.

    And, none of the dereg is going to help with affordability. It is all carefully constructed *not* to.

  16. I skimmed the Atlantic piece. I can’t evaluate the academics’ claims – even if I read their articles, I’m not that good at stats. (I’ll try to take a look but it probably won’t happen soon.)

    What I can tell you is that the up-to-30% figure has been stated by no less than the former head of the L.A. city-county agency, in a radio interview. If she doesn’t know, then a professor somewhere else won’t either. I’ve seen at least one survey, which I think was from San Francisco, that had a 20 to 30% figure.

    I also don’t think homelessness increased at a steady rate from the 80s. I think it got much worse much more recently. (Some of it certainly post 2008.) But, I don’t know for sure.

    I do *not* think that LA has had such great job growth of knowledge jobs since the 90s, such that we can blame this problem on people wanting fancy coffees. (Nice try, dude.) Also there are a lot of undocumented people here. Whatever you think of that, they do take up some of the housing.

    Still, it is possible that I am wrong. That might be true. Like I said, this is an issue that providers do not want to discuss.

    What I’m definitely *not* wrong about is that very few of the current dereg policies will do *anything* to help. They are not designed, or *intended* to do that. The point is to attack middle class homeowners, afaict, on behalf of the Urban Growth Machine. And there is a real sadistic bent to it, imo. And I am sure most of those voting for it live in SFHs.

    I don’t believe in building “affordable” housing anymore. Just subsidize poor people’s rent already. Ask yourself why these people won’t just do that?

    Meanwhile, rent control has failed at the polls – I don’t even understand that, politically. (I know the formal economic argument against it.) We don’t bar foreign ownership or corporate ownership, which is a *very* large part of the problem.

    I will believe what that article says when 2 teams of *tenured* PhDs have a debate on it, and then realize that they all agree.

    Meanwhile, I think there is an entrenched bias and even a corruption on the part of the economics field, in that they allow the neolibs to get away with telling so many lies. They all know perfectly well that trickle-down isn’t going to work in housing.

  17. On the blocked election for Speaker of the US House of Representatives, I have some free advice for the House, and worth every penny. They already have a replacement speaker – Cheryl Johnson, the Clerk, a career official who is running the show perfectly well to general acclaim. The UK House of Commons for one runs just fine with a neutral umpire as Speaker – he or she has to be a sitting MP, which makes it a bit odd for constituents, but they have workarounds. The unSpeaker’s role would have to be beefed up. The order of business would be whatever she can get the votes for, committee assignments have to be negotiated, etc. Meanwhile they can keep up the meaningless daily vote for a “real” Speaker for ever. It is usually easier to fix a problem starting with what you have plus a big roll of duct tape, rather than reinventing an institution.

  18. Homelessness isn’t defined to living rough and on the street, the lack of a house does not necessarily equate to being homeless. Similarly, having a house (or dwelling) does not necessarily disqualify someone from being homeless.

    The ABS defines “homelessness as affecting a person who does not have suitable accommodation alternatives, and their current living arrangement:

    – is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or
    – has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
    – does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations

    A home is not just somewhere with roof walls and a roof. It is a place where people can feel safe and secure. Access to safe and secure housing is a basic human right but unfortunately many people in Australia live in temporary dwellings such as refuges, crisis accommodations or motels.

    This definition of homelessness emphasises a lack of core elements of a ‘home’ including a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space.”

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