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Deceive and Deny, Rinse and Repeat
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Deceive and Deny, Rinse and Repeat

How Congress and the media exacerbate our political dysfunction.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (at the podium) is joined by House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, Rep. Michael Cloud), House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, and Rep. Adrian Smith for a news conference. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)

Hey,

Let me start by just putting down a marker I can point back to over the next year or two. Congress isn’t going to do very much this year or next. But that’s not a marker worth laying down. The thing I’d like people to keep in mind is that very often people will say—in sorrow or anger or joy—that Congress has done something when it in fact has not. 

Consider, for instance, the GOP majority’s recent vote to claw back funding for the IRS. Here’s how several Republican members described their vote:

Now it’s true the House passed a bill that would do something like this if it became law. But, if you ever watched the “How a Bill Becomes a Law” Schoolhouse Rock video, you’d know that one chamber of Congress approving something doesn’t make it a law. 

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it will be promptly ignored. Even if it were to somehow pass the Senate in its current form (a virtual impossibility), the legislation would then go to the president for his signature or veto. (If the Senate changed the bill in any substantive way, it would have to go back to the House for approval—which it probably wouldn’t get.) Regardless, it is not exactly edgy high-end political analysis when I predict with invincible confidence that Joe Biden would veto the bill. Of course, the Senate could override that veto with a vote by two-thirds of senators. Then again, the Senate could also vote to replace the letter “P” with a cat emoji. And that’s about as likely.   

Now, don’t get angry at me for writing something I think every single reader of this “news”letter already knows. I’m not the one pretending I don’t understand the most rudimentary processes of our government. 

And that’s the thing I’d like people to remember in the months and years ahead. There’s a weird social compact to deceive people. Republicans and their friendly commentators want to claim they’ve done something really awesome that’s not just symbolism and messaging. Democrats and their friendly commentators very much want to claim that Republicans did something really terrible that’s not just symbolism and messaging. 

It’s going to happen over and over again. The GOP-controlled House will pass all manner of bills—some good, some bad, some defensible in principle, some utterly lacking in principle—and hail it as a massive victory. Many Democrats and liberal pundits will buy into the fiction that these measures are very serious. And everyone will get to send out fundraising emails about how high the stakes are, when the stakes are in fact penny-ante. 

This is not to say that Congress won’t do anything substantive for the next two years. Even messaging bills have some significance. Congress is also going to have a debt ceiling vote that really is very important. I think some of the Republican investigations being planned have merit and are likely to reveal important facts. I also think some of them will be embarrassing circuses. And, of course, the Senate can continue to confirm judges thanks to the fact the Republicans lost a bunch of winnable seats that would have given them the majority. 

But it’s almost guaranteed that the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate will birth a bunch of stillborn bills that lots of people will pretend are alive, because if there’s one thing that unites vast numbers of ideological and partisan opponents in Washington it’s their desire to inflate the importance of what they do. Politicians don’t want to say, “I’m just going through the motions,” and pundits hate saying their beat isn’t that important. 

If you don’t want to get booked on cable news panels, the best way to convince a producer to pick someone else is to say something like “Yeah, I don’t have strong feelings about this topic because I don’t think it matters very much.”

The other side of the coin.

Perhaps the only thing worse than claiming something is really important when it isn’t is claiming something isn’t really important when it is. Which brings me to this really spectacularly asinine performance by Joy Reid interviewing Rep. Byron Donalds. 

I’ll ignore a lot of the nonsense and just focus on the exchange about Social Security. 

Here’s the meat of it (If you want to watch, it starts here): 

DONALDS: Do you know that Social Security is going to be insolvent in 2035?

REID: It’s not going to be. That is not true. That is actually not true.

DONALDS: Yes, it will. That is actually what the numbers say.

REID: No, it’s actually not true.

DONALDS: Now, Joy …

REID: It’s actually not true.

DONALDS: … I’m a finance professional. I do more than just Congress.

REID: It`s actually not—but it`s actually not true.

DONALDS: I have worked in the financial community.

REID: That is actually not true. That is actually not true.

DONALDS: I’m telling you, Social Security will go insolvent.

REID: That is actually not true.

DONALDS: Those are the facts.

REID: That is not true. That is not true.

DONALDS: Should we not prepare for that? I think we should.

REID: What the Republican Party and what the Tea Party have proposed is privatizing Social Security, which would actually subject Social Security to the whims of the market, which I don’t think that people—that’s not what they paid into it.

DONALDS: If you actually look at the returns of the …

REID: No. No. They’re not. They’re not. That’s not true. That’s not true. That is not true. That is not true.

DONALDS: … the S&P 500 since 2006—the returns of the S&P 500 since 2006—that includes 2008. Hold on.

REID: You’re saying—so you—OK, so you support privatizing Social Security?

It goes on like that. Donalds said he doesn’t support privatization but nonetheless tried to explain that there’s a defensible case for it. Reid sees any defense of the idea as support for the idea. It’s all very bad faith. 

I’m not going to get too deep in the weeds on the factual dispute about Social Security’s solvency because the facts are pretty much entirely on Donalds’ side.  According to the latest Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report, “Under the intermediate assumptions, the projected hypothetical combined OASI and DI Trust Fund asset reserves become depleted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2035.”

Now, I suspect—but don’t honestly know—whether Reid is part of the cult of Modern Monetary Theory or some similar wish-casting voodoo, so I can’t say where she gets her confidence about Social Security’s solvency. (I spent a while spelunking through LexisNexis to see whether I could find the answer and stopped to attend my nosebleed.) But if you’re going to pretend that someone echoing the relevant government body’s position is nonsense, you should offer an actual argument to back up your position. I mean Joe Biden’s Treasury and HHS secretaries are trustees and signed the report. Are they nutty Tea Partiers? 

I feel kind of gross spending this much time taking Reid seriously, but there’s a serious, larger, point. 

A lot of public policy debates today aren’t actual debates because one side refuses to concede that there’s a problem at all. A lot of liberal heads will nod and conservative ones will shake at the analogy to climate change, but it’s relevant. As I’ve written many times, I think climate change is real. What I mean by that is I’m convinced it’s happening. My disagreements with climate change orthodoxy take two forms. First, I disagree with the direness of the problem. Second, I disagree with most of the proposed solutions. 

I’ve found that this level of nuance angers a lot of people on both sides. People who believe that it’s all a myth think any concessions amount to appeasement to a Trojan Horse for some kind of eco-socialism. Warning: More nuance coming—I agree that many environmentalists want to use climate hysteria as a Trojan Horse for economic policies they’d want if climate change didn’t exist. That’s what the Green New Deal was all about. 

But, I still think conservatives make a strategic error refusing to engage. First of all, if climate change really is a problem, we should try to come up with more reasonable solutions and mitigation efforts than the top-down command-and-control, growth-stifling, policies pushed by the “watermelons” (green on the outside, red on the inside). But even if I’m wrong, the simple fact is policymakers (not to mention corporations, media outlets, foundations, etc.) are committed to the belief it’s real and are acting on it. So the choice of doing nothing because it’s a hoax isn’t really on the menu. Decisions are getting made anyway, conservatives and libertarians just aren’t in the room. Many on the right have spent the last 30 years refusing to engage. Has that stopped anybody on the other side of the argument or has it left the field uncontested for them? It’s a bit like Hayek’s caution that conservatives tend to get pulled in a direction not of their own choosing. 

The pure “denier” position makes it somewhere between hard and impossible to form coalitions to find better policies. There are reasonable people in the climate-change-is-a-problem camp. But they are forced into a de facto alliance with the unreasonable climate-change-is-an-existential-crisis camp. Proof of this can be found in the recent thawing of Green opposition to nuclear power. Pro-nuclear power conservatives have every right to say “I told you so.” But they shouldn’t delude themselves that they convinced Greens to change positions: Green panic did that. I suspect that if conservatives engaged the debate earlier, we’d have a much more robust nuclear energy program today. 

Now, I have to confess, the analogy falls down somewhat with entitlements because, unlike with climate change, a very large bloc of voters care a lot about Social Security and Medicare. Reid’s—and the Democrats’ and Donald Trump’s—insolvency “denier” position is politically expedient at a scale the climate change “denier” position isn’t. Though it is true that for many Republicans fearing a primary challenge the dynamic isn’t altogether different. 

The real difference is that doing nothing about the looming entitlement crisis is more politically sustainable even if—I would argue—it’s more irresponsibly unsustainable as a matter of policy. It’s starting to dawn on some liberals that economic growth is essential to fighting climate change. But the notion that Social Security shouldn’t become insolvent still blinds people to the fact that it will be insolvent if we do nothing. And if we really end up going over a fiscal cliff, I can promise you that fighting climate change won’t be anybody’s top priority for quite a while.  
P.S. I put “denier” in quotes above because I generally despise the term. It’s become so widely accepted that a lot of people don’t know that it gained wide currency as an analogy to Holocaust denial. (Al Gore was a pioneer in this rhetorical sleight of hand.) Today “denier” is routinely used to delegitimize people and positions as a way to avoid having an argument. Yes, I think some “deniers” do in fact hold illegitimate and ridiculous positions. And if the term “denier” were reserved for flat-earthers and the like, I’d probably be fine with it. But disagreeing with Anthony Fauci or Paul Ehrlich doesn’t make you a “science denier.” Indeed, claiming that dissenting points of view to the current orthodoxy—never mind a fringe-but-fashionable point of view—“denies” science is itself a kind of denial of the spirit of science, which is supposed to be constantly testing its assumptions.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.