The American political debate is dominated by the massive, growing gap between the left and right poles of public opinion on everything from petty scandals to fundamental questions about morality. On the Pew Research Center’s index of 48 “political values measures”, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is now larger than at any time in the past 25 years, twice as large as it was during the Clinton era.
This dizzying rise in polarization accounts for the popularity of political psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s theory that “tribal moral dynamics” are wreaking havoc on American politics, causing each side to draw further into an ideological cocoon when it feels that its sacred values are threatened. Haidt’s theory is intuitive: when we come to our views on public policy from a non-negotiable starting point (whether a belief in the sanctity of life, the injustice of preventive war, or the inviolability of private property), we’re bound to end up with positions so drastically opposed from each others that even debating them civilly will be difficult or unproductive.
If values are what divide us, though, why do some of our most vicious political disputes concern questions of fact, not value?
Think back to the 2012 election season. Arguably the two most consequential quotes of the campaign were Mitt Romney’s reference to the “47%” (the fraction of Americans who pay no income tax) and Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claim that “legitimate” rapes rarely result in pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”. Both are statements of “fact” (one more plausible than the other) not value, even though abortion and tax policy are two hotly contested subjects in American politics.
When Democrats used Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech to frame him as a class warrior, they highlighted his choice of statistic rather than the arguably more damning value claim that followed – that his “job is not to worry about those people” because Romney could “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”.
To some commentators, incidents like these where debates over value-laden issues are presented as disputes over underlying facts, are a symptom of our broken politics; a political battlefield in which each side’s army lives in its own echo chamber and consequently ends up with a distorted and selective understanding of reality.
This is the phenomenon that libertarian Julian Sanchez, referring to conservative intellectual circles in particular, has dubbed “epistemic closure”. Where Haidt’s approach sees polarization as rooted in our most fundamental values, the epistemic closure argument implies that an increasingly divergent set of factual beliefs is to blame. In combination, Haidt’s argument and Sanchez’s add up to an epigram popularly attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion…” goes Haidt’s reasoning, “…but not to his own facts,” says Sanchez.
I do not dispute Haidt’s point that moral polarization threatens our democracy or Sanchez’s claim that the right is particularly guilt of epistemic closure, but I would like to argue that the way of thinking summarized by Moynihan’s quote tries to separate facts from values in a way that leads to bad diagnoses of our political problems. To tell the story of polarization accurately, we need to understand the ways that facts and values interact.
The philosophical distinction between facts and values is at least as old as David Hume’s description of the “is-ought problem” – namely, that there is no obvious basis by which we can make the leap from what “is” to what “ought” to be, or how we “ought” to behave.
Since Hume, political theorists who want to use moral language in their arguments have generally needed to assume some set of shared principles providing a basis for democratic discourse. In theory, Americans have the kind of deep, shared political tradition that should allow us to debate values on some common footing. Unfortunately, polarization has driven the left and right so far apart on even the most basic questions that liberals and conservatives rarely even need to pit values against each other explicitly.
For example, consider the debate over strict voter ID legislation, which hinges on a dispute over whether large numbers of fraudulent votes are actually cast. This should be a straightforwardly empirical question, but since evidence of absence is difficult to prove, no number of government investigations or independent studies has been enough to shake the belief among activists on the right that voter fraud is rampant.
Starting from such disparate factual premises, liberals and conservatives each arrive at the conclusion that their preferred voter ID policies are the best under any reasonable value system. Tea Party activists like True The Vote claim (with little or no evidence) that strict ID laws actually boost participation by increasing voter confidence in the process, while liberal activists argue that putting up arbitrary barriers to voting undermines the integrity of elections in its own right.
An extremely powerful neutral arbiter might be able to resolve this dispute by, let’s say, conducting a massive randomized trial of each side’s proposed policies to examine their effects on voter confidence and participation. Since such neutral intervention is unlikely, however, liberals and conservatives have to fall back on their preexisting understanding of the way the world works to judge whether it is more likely that our democracy is presently under threat from fraud or from impediments to participation. This kind of judgment about what constitutes a threat is bound to be highly subjective – as political theorist Corey Robin has argued in the context of national security – so it’s unsurprising that liberals are more attuned to perceive the threat from exclusion by the powerful, while conservatives are warier of rule-breaking by the socially marginalized.
It is tempting to describe this as motivated reasoning – values inappropriately colouring views of factual questions – but only in the way that all reasoning is motivated. People tend to believe that their values express deep truths about the way the world works, so they naturally fall back on those truths when they think about complicated "empirical" questions, such as what factors promote political participation.
Thus, having framed the danger so differently, Republicans and Democrats can each claim that their solution is the one that will preserve fairness AND integrity in elections. You don’t need to find both arguments equally plausible to see that disputes in which each side claims to represent all respectable values are bound to heat up.
This state of affairs makes life difficult for the institutions that attempt to mediate conflict in American politics, from nonpartisan think tanks to newspapers to debate moderators. Institutions like these are not necessarily unaware that values are inextricable from political inquiry, but generally insist that those values do their work only after the examination of the facts has taken place. Ideally, these neutral arbiters would like to take complicated policy questions, process the facts, and boil them down to a question of values. In other words, they want to be able to say “Policy A and B are both reasonable options, but if you value X you will support A, and if you value Y you’ll favor B”.
The problem with this approach is that values can’t simply be set aside until the fact-based part of the investigation is over; facts and values are entangled every step of the way.
As an example, my former employer, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, was one of several progressive organizations that spent much of 2011 and 2012 combatting future Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Because Ryan’s plan would have phased out Medicare’s guaranteed benefits (while guaranteeing them for current seniors) in favor of a subsidy that the elderly could use to buy private insurance, we attacked Ryan for wanting to “end Medicare”. PolitiFact.com, the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking operation, called this charge by Democrats its “lie of the year”, reasoning that, under Ryan’s plan, the government would still run a program named “Medicare” that provided (greatly diminished) health benefits to seniors. Progressives were unconvinced. “According to [PolitiFact's] logic”, argued blogger Jed Lewison of Daily Kos, “if the FBI were replaced with a voucher program wherein citizens would receive subsidies for hiring private investigators to look into criminal activity, but the agency running the voucher program were still called the FBI, it would be unfair to say that the FBI had been ended”.
Lewison’s argument hints at why this question is such a difficult one. Settling on a neutral vocabulary should be the first step in examining the facts underlying a policy dispute, but even that first step is liable to founder on value questions. In this case, it’s not possible to agree on the meaning of the word “Medicare” without arguing about the program’s purpose.
Those whose liberal values lead them to view the program as just one element of the broader safety net for the most vulnerable look at Ryan’s plan and see an attempt to shatter the political coalition behind the welfare state. Those who see Medicare through a conservative frame of hard-earned reward for seniors, particularly those whose tax dollars have already paid into the program, see Ryan’s plan as an effort to preserve the essence of Medicare in an age of tight budgets. Without a way to resolve this definitional dispute without making reference to questions of policy and value, it is no wonder American political debate feels so totalizing – as though we can’t agree on anything without arguing about everything.
Failing to understand the relationship between facts and values leads to nonsensical prescriptions for policy and political strategy. The most prominent of these is probably the national punditry’s obsession with bipartisanship, particularly the idea that it is possible to build consensus on hotly contested issues by finding propositions on which all reasonable Americans should be able to agree. A bipartisan commission has been proposed at one time or another as a solution to just about every major policy issue – most recently by President Obama as a response to 2012’s numerous election administration fiascoes. The idea behind commissions like this one is that, even in an age of polarization, Americans share enough fundamental values to find common ground if only they could work from roughly the same set of facts.
This kind of end-run around polarization fails because it doesn’t account for the role ideology plays in choosing which facts are worthy of consideration.
For example, most liberals were unenthusiastic about the Simpson-Bowles commission on deficit reduction from the moment it was proposed, suspecting (correctly) that it would seek large cuts to entitlement programs. To center-right commentators like Joe Scarborough, this is the left-wing equivalent of climate change denialism: after all, how can you oppose deliberating about the best way to reduce the deficit?
What opponents of the commission recognized, however, was that at the moment a commission was created to focus specifically on deficit reduction, values had already done 80 percent of their work by identifying the deficit as a pressing national issue above or even alongside, climate change or inequality. This framing empowers pro-austerity advocates and proposals at the expense of alternatives in a way that liberals foresaw would inevitably produce recommendations they would oppose.
For the same reason, conservatives are unlikely to embrace Obama’s commission on election administration, or any of numerous bipartisan examinations of the nation’s gun laws proposed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Technocratic solutions are workable for issues where there is widespread agreement on a policy goal, and disagreement about the best way to achieve that goal doesn’t break down along left-right lines – see, for example, the commission that makes decisions about military base closings. Absent those conditions, though, we’re not likely to find a magic bipartisan formula for eradicating disputes over values.
As an alternative to the search for common ground on values, some political observers simply embrace the fact-value distinction and argue that we need to set values aside as best we can when thinking about policy. This strategy was popular on the left during the Bush years, when Republicans seemed to have a stranglehold on the rhetoric of values (with Moynihan’s quote as a rallying cry for liberals).
Take, for example, Ezra Klein’s 2007 article “Overvaluing American Values” in the progressive American Prospect. Making the case against future Obama State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter’s case for an American foreign policy based on liberal values, Klein wrote that he was “fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse”. Instead of relying on value judgments, Klein argued, we should assess our foreign policy by its likely consequences.
But appealing to consequences doesn’t eliminate values from the discussion. For instance, we can’t judge whether consequences are good or bad without choosing criteria:
How do we weigh the lives of Americans against those of foreigners?
How valuable is liberty relative to order?
Setting those questions aside, though, it’s not possible to think about an issue as complex as the likely effects of American foreign policy without leaning heavily on values. Those who believe strongly in the importance of discipline and resolve, whether in domestic policy or individual behavior, tend to think that a foreign policy with those qualities will produce good consequences. The same is true for people who believe in the value of cooperation. Calling this phenomenon “issue constraint” – to use the language of political science – doesn’t change the fact that we have to use values in this way in order to think about complicated political issues.
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, separating facts from values in thinking about politics is bound to lead to frustration and accusations of bad faith. Humans don’t blindly deduce facts from their ideology, nor do they arrive at values after a careful consideration of empirical data.
Rather than trying to puzzle out which of our political disagreements are “really” matters of fact or value, I would propose that we think about the problem another way: people generally have some intuition about the way the world works that guides both the facts we perceive as important and the values we profess.
This point has special relevance for American liberals (like myself), who occasionally wring their hands because they have difficulty articulating unifying, bright-line principles comparable to those professed by, say, Ayn Rand acolytes. Progressives, just like libertarians, have strongly held beliefs about the way society operates that underpin our empirical sense, our policy positions, and our values.
A good example is the progressive tenet that disparities of social and economic power have far-reaching consequences. Is this a statement of values masquerading as an empirical claim, or the empirical basis from which progressives derive the values of fairness and social justice?
Again, I would argue that the distinction doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that beliefs like this one shape every aspect of our engagement with politics.
For example, if conservatives make an argument to the effect that some minority group is behaving irrationally and irresponsibly, the belief described above governs the way progressives will evaluate that claim – in this case, by suggesting that we should first investigate whether social marginalization is actually the root cause of the conflict. Principles like this one aren't guaranteed to lead us to an accurate understanding of the issue, but we can say that anyone who subscribes to a philosophy of social justice is essentially claiming that this worldview is a better guide to thinking about politics and society than the alternatives.
Adopting this view of the relationship between facts and values is not cause for optimism about the state of political discourse in the United States. Liberals and conservatives probably will not find it possible to set values aside to focus on the facts, or use the language of values to break the cycle of epistemic closure. Instead, left and right will have to argue about the merits of the worldviews that underlie our policy disagreements.
We can try to convince our political opponents with the language of facts or the language of values, but no number of bipartisan commissions will make this kind of debate any less necessary.