For Republicans, reality no longer pays rent
Beliefs work better for those who hold them if their beliefs pay rent. Useful beliefs, in other words, are ones that accurately anticipate experiences in reality.
If you’re a cattle rancher who’s somehow convinced yourself that cattle are actually a species of corn, and so you till and fertilize some soil and forcibly plant your cattle into it with the expectation that your cattle will grow tall and healthy in the nutrient-rich soil, it won’t take long for your spurious belief to fail to pay rent (and gruesomely kill your cattle). Similarly, if you’re a corn farmer who throws some seeds into an alfalfa pasture, where you expect your corn will grow strong by grazing from the nutrient-rich hay in your field, you may do a little better than the cattle farmer — you might, in other words, not immediately kill all of your intended produce — but your spurious belief didn’t help you pay rent, either.
People, for all of our faults and imperfections, are usually pretty decent about identifying which beliefs pay rent and which beliefs don’t when we apply them to immediately obvious problems like the ones above. Cattle are cattle; corn is corn; each should be treated accordingly, and anyone who tries to tell you one is the other is obviously a crank.
Where we frequently fail is when our beliefs have seemingly little bearing on our experiences in any particular direction. For most of us, believing anything about quantum mechanics has little direct impact on our lives — so why not read a little Deepak Chopra and believe in a little quantum mysticism? If you rarely travel, does it really matter if the world is flat or round? Does it actually make a difference in your life if the world is six thousand years old, six billion years old, or something in between?
When faced with these questions, many of us adopt beliefs which accurately anticipate experiences with each other over experiences which might accurately anticipate experiences in the real world if we were ever in a position to test them.
If you’re not working in quantum computing (you might be soon, by the way), for example, talking about how “quantum entanglement” caused you to feel inexorably drawn towards a steamy romantic fling during your last vacation will probably impress and entertain your friends far more than knowing how qubits work. Similarly, if the difference between the world being six thousand or six billion years old is one answer gives you free babysitting through your fundamentalist community while the other answer lets you be, at best, less wrong in the factual particulars of the world’s actual age (the Earth is probably closer to 4.55 billion years old), well, being a Young Earth Creationist makes it possible for you to get the child care you need to stay employed and pay rent.
This is all well and fine in isolation. It probably doesn’t matter if you, specifically, understand quantum physics, the curvature and age of the Earth, evolution, climate change, or any number of other, technically involved fields. Personally, when I’m not flinging paragraphs at the internet, I work in information technology — an important part of my job is ensuring those who rely upon my and my colleagues’ work don’t have to understand our jobs to do their jobs. That’s normal and valuable.
On the other hand, what happens when a programmer tries to “cure aging” by flipping qubits in IBM Quantum according to principles of quantum woo they learned from some New Age quack? What happens when a pilot drafts a flight plan with the assumption that the world is flat? How effective would you be as a geologist if you assumed fossil records and geological layers were planted by Satan to deceive mankind? Can you, as a professional, pay rent — meaning, can you use your knowledge of expected experiences to make accurate and useful predictions of the future within your field — if your beliefs are disconnected from reality?
Worse yet, what happens when your need to pay social rent — to remain connected to your family, your friends, and your community — conflicts with your need to pay professional rent? If you’re a nurse, do you patiently talk to your family, your friends, and your neighbors about the safety and efficacy of vaccines? Or do you confirm your social group’s biases and use your medical training to provide scholastic support to their beliefs? What are the consequences to you, as an individual, for your choice? What are the consequences to those around you?
Which choice pays your rent?
In politics, it’s pretty rare for beliefs based on direct, testable observations against physical reality to pay rent in the ballot box, though there’s usually at least some loosely discernible connection between the two. The reason for this is obvious: Individually, most of us have little to no direct effect on the outcome of an election, and even less of an explicit connection to public policy and its outcomes, so it doesn’t affect most of us if our beliefs on politics or its policy products map to reality or not. What’s the harm in voting for someone who believes the Queen of England pushes drugs through George Soros? What’s the harm in believing he’s right?
Collectively, the answer is political action does, at some point, interface with reality. Whether it’s merely the reality of ballot box outcomes, or the admittedly more difficult to parse reality of public policy outcomes, sooner or later the officials we elect and the policies they enact actually affect us. The good news is this usually provides a measure of discipline, both for politicians and the electorate — when delusional politicians implement delusional policies against our neighborhoods, those delusions stop being entertainingly novel trifles we can believe any old thing about and instead become active disruptions to our individual ability to pay rent.
The bad news is this process isn’t working anymore.
This disconnect from reality is a problem for every American political movement, it’s true, in much the same way “all lives matter” — yes, every side has their problems, but one side is clearly in more trouble than the rest. Picking on Nevada’s Democrats solely for the sake of completeness, they can study company-run counties and public options long enough for both ideas to complete law school, but at some point, their governing coalition — the people who elect and support Democrats — expect the politicians they support to stop studying and actually turn a completed assignment in. “If elected, I promise to study your issue until I’m term-limited out of office” is not as compelling of an elevator pitch as some elected Democrats seem to think it is.
Crucially, however, the Democratic governing coalition actually expects politicians and their policies to do something — what, exactly, is sometimes unclear and occasionally contradictory, but “winning elections” is usually considered a minimally viable outcome. The same these days cannot be said for Republicans, who reject our reality and stubbornly insist on pretending they will replace it with their own.
This disconnect from reality doesn’t just apply to the Big Lie. Yes, Republicans in Texas, a state Trump won, insist on lighting their constituents’ tax dollars on fire by auditing their election results, just like Republicans in Arizona just finished doing. No, Republicans in Texas are no more likely to believe the results of their audit once it's finished than Republicans in Arizona proved to be. Yes, as ProPublica recently reported, Texan Republicans are even attacking their Republican election officials, just like Nevada’s Republicans attacked Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske. No, none of this will get Trump re-elected — again, he already won Texas’ electoral votes, so this backbiting won’t change a thing.
But the madness doesn’t stop there. Madness never does.
The Republican base, which senatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s been pandering to as aggressively as humanly possible for the past year, loves candidates who run against the “left-wing” media (depending on who you ask, this even includes Fox News). So, naturally, to curry favor to Washoe County voters at his most recent campaign stop in Reno — voters he failed to win over in 2018 and must win over if he wants to win in 2022 — he chewed out and refused to answer questions from a Las Vegas Sun reporter, thus ingratiating himself both to Washoe County voters (who reflexively dislike anything related to Las Vegas) and his supporters in the conservative-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Right? He did the smart thing and refused to answer questions from a Las Vegas Sun reporter in Reno… right?
Of course not. Demonstrating the gelatin-sharp political acumen which lost him the 2018 election, he announced he will take his message “directly to voters, not through the liberal media middle men (sic) at the RGJ” and attacked a local reporter instead.
Never mind that the only print publication the Reno Gazette-Journal might be ideologically to the left of in the Truckee Meadows is the Sparks Tribune, a weekly newspaper with one journalist (who, to be fair, wins awards), three opinion columnists (one of whom is a labor organizer), and an editor who can only be bothered to crosspost his publication’s opinion columns online when he’s the one writing them (I’m a subscriber — I’m allowed to be a little salty, even if they republish content from The Nevada Independent, too). Also never mind that the Reno Gazette-Journal published a column he wrote in March. If Laxalt thinks the RGJ is too far left for his liking, perhaps he’d prefer to be interviewed by someone from This Is Reno or the Reno News & Review the next time he’s in town.
Laxalt’s behavior, like Dean Heller’s last week, would be inexplicable in a world in which Republican voters and supporters expect their politicians to win elections. That world, however, has been abandoned, both statewide and nationwide, to an alternate reality where the January 6th insurrection is viewed as “America’s Tiananmen Square.”
It has been abandoned to an alternate reality where the only way a dogmatically conservative radio talk show host could lose a statewide election in famously liberal California is due to “voting irregularities.”
It has been abandoned to an alternate reality where conservative think tanks complain about postmodernism and the destruction of absolute truth one minute, then say “the question is whose truth and whose reason” five minutes later.
It has been abandoned to an alternate reality where, even though only 52 percent of voters on the right (and fewer than 20 percent of the rest) favor fewer COVID-19 restrictions, and even though 60 percent of likely voters in Nevada favor mask mandates, Republican candidates throughout the state are falling all over themselves to vocally oppose every pandemic restriction currently on the books.
It has been abandoned to an alternate reality where a one-term assemblyman is running for secretary of state of Nevada on a platform of keeping Haitians out of Texas and inviting online pillow salesmen to review our election systems — and, in that primary, he’s probably the frontrunner.
That’s a problem because we also live in a world in which a large majority of Nevadans don’t approve Gov. Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic, in no small part because a lot of pandemic policy, both throughout the state and nationwide, was intentionally written to be unreasonable and ignored. Unfortunately, instead of demanding their candidates choose different policies which might pay rent in reality, Republicans are stubbornly demanding that their candidates run on a platform of delivering an alternate reality to their base, one in which COVID-19 and Trump’s loss to Joe Biden never happened.
Republicans, in other words, are no longer interested in helping us come up with ideas which pay rent, at least not in reality, which leaves many of us with two questions: When does that statewide eviction moratorium end, and how does one evict an entire political party?
David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the executive committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].