Until the 1980s, American conservatives used to pride themselves on being no-nonsense, hard-headed pragmatists with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Let others dream of utopia; they would stick to the cold facts. Then Ronald Reagan inspired the Republican Party with soaring anti-government rhetoric and introduced them to the delights of having an ideology. It was at that moment that many conservatives began to lose contact with reality.
There have been two recent examples in the presidential campaign of conservatives in denial. The latest is the suggestion that the independent body responsible for collating employment figures deliberately altered September’s joblessness numbers to show that unemployment had dropped to 7.8 per cent, the lowest figure in Barack Obama’s presidency. Leading the charge was the crusty former boss of General Electric Jack Welch, who traced the cooking of the books to the president’s Chicago campaign team, which he accused of trying to distract Americans from the president’s weak performance in the first televised debate.
“Unbelievable jobs numbers,” he tweeted. “These Chicago guys will do anything . . . Can’t debate so change numbers.” Peggy Noonan, the queen of conservative cheerleaders on Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, attributed Welch’s wild accusation to “widespread scepticism towards the actions and efforts of the US government”. As she said on ABC on 7 October: “I don’t think anybody in America looks at the number . . . and thinks that’s a real reflection of reality.”
This rejection of an official statistic arrived at by impeccably objective social scientists comes hard on the heels of widespread conservative rage at the methodology of this campaign’s opinion polls. Republicans accuse pollsters of skewing the figures to mislead voters into believing Obama is on target to win the White House. Since August, poll after poll has shown Obama a nose ahead of Mitt Romney nationally and enjoying a noticeable lead in the battleground states. According to Republican commentators, however, the polls reflect a pro- Obama bias in the “mainstream media” that causes pollsters to oversample voters likely to support the president. Despite a post-debate Pew poll showing Romney now ahead, in Murdoch’s New York Post the usually level-headed John Podhoretz dismissed polls as “junk data”.
In a rehearsed zinger in the first debate, Romney told Obama, “You’re entitled as president to your own airplane and your own house but not your own facts.” You will recall the troubling remarks about abortion made in August by Todd Akin, the Republican senatorial candidate in Missouri, who has a seat on the House of Representatives science committee. Discussing whether women who have been raped should have the legal right to an abortion, he declared, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Conservatives, it seems, can have their own plane, their own house (or two) and their own reproductive science.
I wrote in this column a while ago that a substantial number of Americans have turned their back on the real world and embraced a new age of unreason, a counterfactual universe that glorifies the irrational and dignifies ignorance. It was thought that creationism, the belief that God created all creatures in their current evolved form, had been put to rest at the “Scopes monkey trial” in 1925, when a science teacher in Tennessee was found guilty of instructing his pupils in Darwinism. The nationwide publicity the trial attracted put a stop to such absurdities and the teacher was set free.
Now, creationism is not only commonly believed once more but is used by Republicans to castigate as godless those who insist that evolution is true. On 27 September, the Republican congressman Paul Broun from Georgia – another unlikely member of the House science committee – said: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a saviour.”
The campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change, largely funded by the Koch brothers, whose billions derive from drilling for oil in Texas, follows a similar path. Many conservatives deny global warming, despite overwhelming evidence that burning fossil fuels has warmed the planet. The Kochs employ scientists to try to disprove or discredit the honest work of climate-change researchers.
This contrarian approach to knowledge has infected economics. Some prominent conservatives, such as Romney’s vice-presidential pick, Paul Ryan, and the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, want to return economics to pre-Keynesian days, when it was considered a virtue for governments to look on in impotent inaction as the markets did their worst, businesses crashed, banks folded, fortunes were lost and millions of people were thrown out of work.
Such “Austrian economics” ideas, derived from the dogmas of the conservative saints Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, are based on the assumption that if the size of government is kept to a minimum and governments stop trying to manage the economy, the markets will somehow “clear” and economic activity will eventually reach an equilibrium in which businesses operate at optimum efficiency and full employment is restored. This is not economics. It is an act of faith. As economic history relates – and as John Maynard Keynes showed in the late 1920s – the benign equilibrium promised by laissez-faire has never been reached.
It does not matter much that when Republicans are losing they cast doubt on the veracity of the polls. Or, when the economy offers some bright news about unemployment, that those figures, too, are impugned as fiction. The truth will come out in the wash and there’s no harm done. More troubling is that if Romney were to become president he will have been elected to represent the wacky views held by his base, many of which are either wishful thinking or pure fantasy.