Cynical Fundamentalism: The Threat to American Evidence-Based Traditions

When Rick Perry falsely claimed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 created “zero jobs,” the response of enlightened commentators was to point to easily accessible evidence to disprove Perry's claim. Liberal media perform similar rebuttals to patently false Republican and Fox News assertions. These rebuttals expect three things – that objective evidence will change fixed minds, that objective evidence will make public officials accountable and that objective evidence will inform public discourse. But evidence does not matter to Fox News or other fundamentalist fear promoters. They are engaged in a sophisticated strategy to package their controllers' and contributors' policy interests in claims that are immune to evidence.

This cynical fundamentalist strategy is employed with full knowledge that claims like government is bad, regulation is evil, climate change is a myth and the story of creation is scientifically true are evidence free. The strategic fundamentalists are fully aware of American evidence-based traditions. They know that Americans expect judges and juries to reach just verdicts based on admissible evidence, not pre-emptive and categorical doctrines. They know we expect our scientists to test theories by empirical evidence and objective experimentation, not by scripture. They know we expect our journalists to report corroborated facts, not political spin. They know we require academic research to comply with standards of scrupulous scholarship, not with the agenda of think-tank funders. They know American legislation must be based on investigated social need, not on fundamentalist ideology. Yet, these cynical fundamentalists defile American evidence-based traditions.

In “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, expected American legislators to be enlightened statesmen who “will be able to adjust … clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good.” Madison wrote that the regulation of conflicting policy interests is “the principal task of modern legislation,” and a republic form of government in which a small number of citizens are elected by the rest is more likely to produce a body of legislators “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

US high school civics classes teach the ethics of legislative statesmanship implicit in Madison's expectations for elected representatives. Students learn that, in the houses of Congress, policy interests collide and elected representatives resolve those policy conflicts through negotiation. And, as with all negotiation opponents, policy opponents are faced with the choice to compromise or not to compromise. The ethics of legislative statesmanship require representatives to forward think the beneficial and harmful consequences of their alternate choices. Legislators must ask: What are the immediate and remote impacts for the society as a whole of the policy in dispute? What harms will occur if a compromise is not reached? What tradeoffs are necessary to reach a compromise? Will a specific compromise do less harm or more good than not compromising?

Today's cynical fundamentalist strategy has made principled negotiation, forward-thinking consequences and rational compromise irrelevant to legislative governance. Their “true believer” position kills constructive debate and compromise. Their policy positions are based on evidence-free ideology. Their tactics in negotiation and debate are either to repeat fundamentalist mantras or to just say, “No.” The only thing that matters to strategic fundamentalists is their number of votes. Their conduct corrupts our evidence-based deliberative democracy.

The strategic fundamentalists are rarely exposed as policy grifters in the service of their controllers and contributors like the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, and others. Rather, their risk of exposure is limited to easily forgotten sound bites that do not reveal their desire to transform the American republic into a factional dictatorship.

The first line of defense against the strategic fundamentalists and the coming tsunami of corporate money supporting them is to recognize their cynical work in all media. You will know them by their evidence-free hustles.

The second line of defense is to purge them from our system of constitutional governance. All responsible citizens need to vote in the 2012 election. All responsible citizens must vote to restore our evidence-based traditions.