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. 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.