The Politics of Doubt

It doesn’t seem to matter how thoughtful, well prepared or well-crafted a policy is. Or whether—after bouts of arm-twisting, waves of lobbying and compromises made and re-made in back rooms—it can finally be passed by elected democratic representatives and signed into law. What matters is the sales plan. For without that, the public can be swayed against the best laid plans of mice and men…even earnest, honest efforts marshalled on its collective behalf.

It is possible, for example, to convene a diverse group of national experts, who have experience designing policies, and groups of leaders who have successfully implemented such policies, and to test their experiences against the work of analysts and academics and practitioners in the field in question. Yet in the end, it is the sales plan that matters. Otherwise, all this groundwork, conducted in good faith, may fail to garner public support.


I hate to say this, because it sounds so cynical. But I feel as though I’ve been watching such a Kafkaesque scene unfold before my eyes for the last two years. So much work, so many people, so much experience, so much creative energy amassed in efforts to solve authentic problems (whether those problems are the economic downturn, the paucity of jobs, the unregulated financial structures, the West’s self-destructive addiction to oil, global warming, growing poverty or the exorbitant costs of U.S. health care) eventually gets placed on one side of the scale. Detractors and critics stand on the other side. I’m not sure where the media stand, at least those not standing with the detractors and critics.

Yet the critics don’t even have to read the bill or the policy at issue, or even know the actual claims and arguments involved. They need no experience of their own and no ideas of their own in order to weigh in effectively. All they have to do is plant doubts. Like weeds, these seem to have a regenerative life of their own and do a lot of their destructive work for them.

The critics doubt that this new idea, bill, or law will even solve the problem. (It won’t work.) Or more specifically, they doubt it will solve the problem at a cost they find agreeable. (It costs too much.) Or they doubt it will help without causing a host of other problems, perhaps far worse than the one in question. (It’s worse than doing nothing.) The critics need no proof for any of these claims, mind you. For it is in the leaden nature of doubt to weigh in substantially without the bother of verification. Doubt undermines; it doesn’t attack.

The critics express doubts about the process too: doubt that the method of coming up with the idea or law was appropriate, applicable to their particular region, was comprehensive, complies with the constitution, or at least with what the framers thought. (Doubters never doubt that they know what the framers thought.) Critics doubt the method was fair, transparent or conducted in a way once promised.

Meanwhile, the problem waiting to be solved will not merely persist, but will worsen, while the doubters ply their trade. Doubt is a power game in which the stakes can be great but, for the doubter, the costs can be virtually nothing: no energy, no facts, no preparation. Doubters are masters of the anecdote. One or two is usually enough to plant a doubt: “I know a guy who…” “One of my neighbors tried something like that and….” Mounds of facts and multi-year studies can be toppled by such anecdotes if they fall on willing ears.

Doubt can undermine the efforts of others, as effectively as lying or yarn spinning (Remember the supposed “death panels” in the health care law? It doesn’t matter now that there never were such things). Doubt can be as effective as an accusation: When did you stop beating your wife? Both send one’s opponent scrambling to marshall the evidence, while the doubter smiles and tells stories or shakes his head.

Two things especially trouble me about the politics of doubt. First that it is such a formidable weapon. Like a cheap shot well aimed and well timed, it proves effective time and time again, like a daily car bomb in an unexpected place that keeps a town in line. Second, I’m troubled that so much good is obliterated by the politics of doubt. Why do people fall for such tactics? Why don’t they trust the facts and the work and testimony of lifelong practitioners over the doubts and anecdotes of politicos? Why don’t the leaders who convene the experts—whose ideas and experience lead to sound policy—also line up the nation’s best communicators as a sales force to combat the doubters and liars and naysayers?

There’s a saying, “Build it and they will come.” In this case the builders are those who would solve national problems by coming up with practical solutions. And when they do, the doubters will come.

Karen Sue Smith

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 2 months ago
"Yet the critics don’t even have to read the bill or the policy at issue, or even know the actual claims and arguments involved."

Don't you mean the proponents of said poicy?  You are accussing your political enemies of the exact behavior that the democrats ingaged in, i.e. the vast majority of lawmakers who voted for the 2,000+ page health care centralization bill did NOT read the legislation.

As for centralized planning and technocratic "expertise," we have seen this play out in quite a devestating and dehumanizing manner in communist governments in the past century...

As for the basic spiritual issues here, gnostics believe in an "elect," Catholics believe in the wisdom of simple people, local community and subidsarity.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago
I think a lot of people would be surprised by how many pages of complex directives are contained in every piece of legislation and how much more complex that becomes once the agencies involved put it into practical terms. 

Just like Saturday Mass is now attended mostly by the same people who most loudly objected to it when it was first proposed, those who are loudest in opposition to health reform legislation are likely to be those who benefit the most from it.
ed gleason
8 years 2 months ago
I agree that the doubters and obstructionists have the easy path. The socialist/commie card as some posters here insist on posting since last year is an example. The good news is after the lame duck Congress passes tax reduction for the 98% and repeals 'don't ask don't tell' the gridlock for two years will not be not too bad. The Obamarket =Dow up 72% since he took over, from 6500 to 11100, will gradually pull us out of the great Depression that Bush's advisor's saw coming at their end of reign. Jobs, profits and productivity will gradually increase and the Know-nothings negativity will be revealed as empty threats.  
Tom Maher
8 years 2 months ago
Thank goodness most Americans do not believe in the saving power of government programs.  The authors vision of how the voting public should act and what they should value and support is not well accounted for by the author.  The author fails to accurately analyze or even recognize the voting majority in oppossiton to government programs such as the newly enacted healthcare law.

These grand visons such as healthcare are certain to fail becasue they lack majority political support.  Futher the opposition to government programs such as the new healthcare law is hugh.  So far 21 states have lawsuits agaist the new healthcare law.  Courts have ruled that these lawsuits have valid constitutional issues that must be heard and decided on.  The Constitution does limit the power of the federal government. This is not cynical doubt this is wholesome reality. 

The federal government is not devine, all-powerful, all-knowingly and hyper effiecent.   The federal government struggles to do even routine functions such as pass an annual budget at least before the budget year begins.  We still do not have a budget for this fiscal year that began Octovber 1st.  And existing programs such as social security and medicare which have been on the books for decades are chronically poorly maintained.  

Very reasonably the American people's lack of faith in government programs is very well founded.  
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago
What the government should not be doing is having hearings about steriod use in baseball or whether (as Newt Gingrich proposes) an NPR correspondent should have been fired.

On the other hand, seeing to it that all it's citizens have access to decent food, housing, clothing, and health care is the business of government, because left unregulated those providing these necessities have an unfair advantage over those who need them.  Therefore, it is not only reasonable, but obligatory, that government reforms, first, the health insurance industry and then, we hope, the health care industry, including especially the pharamceutical industry.

On top of that, it is high time that government re-regulates the banking industry and articulates ethical standards to be applied in business transactions, given that ethics are largely disregarded in favor of profit-making, such that only a fool would be disinclined to utilitze any loophole it can identify in legislation in order to be more profitable than its competitors.

Too many people bemoan the fact that the President they elected chooses to work within the system instead of behaving like a dictator or king.  This is coming from both extremes, and is stoked by those who make use of it for political gain.
8 years 2 months ago
The democrats have a majority in the house and senate, and the President is a democrat.  On that basis alone one could reasonably assess that there is more than mere contradictory doubt at work when a bill fails to pass without the use of extradordinary procedures and closed door sessions.

The country and the people are in the midst of a financial meltdown of historic proportions.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the position of the so called doubters of new legislation are based on valid concerns, backed by historical precedent, that government spending at this time is imprudent?

While I envy the idealism of the poster, the implication that any legislation by any party is proposed out of a sole desire to do "good" is humorous at best.  So called experts are usually political tools and oftentimes wrong. 
Vincent Miller
8 years 2 months ago
A very helpful, if depressing post.  So many of the comments confirm it's validity.

We live in a very complex world, where complex policies are required to address complex problems.  That demands a lot of everyone.

A lot of the blame has to fall on the media.  They've retreated to he says/she says objectivity and are now willing to run just about any crazy allegation that surfaces on the web.  We desperately need structured debate on the many societal and civilizational issues we face.

People are capable of much more than what passes for public debate demands of them.  I'm always struck by Noam Chomsky's obvservation about how much complex data sports writers and broadcasters share with their audiences.  If only our coverage of politics were so data rich.
8 years 2 months ago
Since my earlier post was predictably deleted, I'll just say that I find it sad that Ms. Smith & America magazine have to resort to accusing a majority of Americans, including over half the Democrats in Congress in some instances (as Michael Brooks correctly observes) of merely being cynical doubters in their opposition to certian policies.  Again, i didnt hear this opinion when President Bush tried to reform Social Security.  If there is doubt, it is because Pres. Obama has lost trust be breaking many of his own pledges re: the "sales" process.
Vincent Miller
8 years 2 months ago
I think, in addition to the result of a weak journalism and the finely honed emotional appeals of naysayers, the problem also very much the result of globalization.

The national scale is a very complex and unstable construction.  It requires us to imagine millions we will never know as our peers, it requires us to imagine vast spaces and networks institutions as intelligible.  In the postwar period, for a variety of reasons, the national scale was imaginible in a relatively stable way.  This went beyond the Age of Consensus to vastly different proposals for what to do for the country as a whole.  Post-sputnik science education, interstate highways, social security, medicare, etc.

Globalization has in many different ways opened the interiors of nation states up to unpredictable influences from vast distances and enabled us to choose our way out of broader diverse networks of debate.

National governments still retain very significant powers, but the national domain is no longer readily imaginable.  Thus the disappearance of the "common sense" context within which such debates about policy used to be carrried out.

Many catholics have been seduced by or willing contributors to the libertarian, anti-social ethos that has contributed so much to this form of globalization.  The misuse of "subsidiarity" to mean only the limiting of government authority, rejecting its balancing imperative that help is necessary from higher levels when lower levels can not address issues themselves has been one of the central intellectual assaults on the the fading common good.
8 years 2 months ago
The issue of libertarianism is not just one that should be addressed by the right or by issue of commercial globalization.  There is also a libertine strain of social policy and personal freedom (esp. in sexual matters) that dominates the left and allows for the continuing attack on local community, family and authority of faith.

The left and the right are together on this - one for economic freedom and the other for social freedom - both lead to hyper atomization and individualization.

That said, calling for subsidarity is not a ploy, or are Catholics how do so dupes for the libertarians.  While technology has advanced, human nature and first things are the same as they were for thousands of years and to say that complexity prevents local community from addressing issues such as health, crime and punishment, education, small business etc. is pure sophistry and condescension and the promotion of a centralized, technocratic levithian over faith, community and human ingenuity.


The latest from america

I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019