The Terrible Simplifiers

I have been trying to figure out if I am guilty of sentimentalizing the “good old days,” or if the explosion of talk shows on radio and cable television has brought about a dramatic change in the way current events are discussed in this country.

If I had to choose, I would pick latter. It seems to me clear that political debate is carried out nowadays by what the 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt called “terrible simplifiers.” (That was the term Burkhardt used to describe utopian social engineers who were convinced that they had discovered the key to transform society dramatically for the better, if only they could take control of the reins of power.)

Who are the modern “terrible simplifiers” I have in mind? They can be found on both the Left and the Right. Let’s look at the Right first. I am a fan of both Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. They perform a valuable service. People who listen to Hannity and Limbaugh are provided with a “shop talk” that enables them to argue around the water cooler against the left-wing biases that dominate the mainstream media and in our schools.

Still, it has to be said: Their rhetoric is often full of caricatures and clichés — terrible simplifications — about what motivates the American Left. It can be argued that putting those ideas in circulation is the best way to help the Republicans win elections. But there is more to the culture wars than Republican victories at the ballot box. Voters motivated by simplistic slogans, especially younger voters, will be unlikely to stick to their principles when a left-wing professor or friend points out to them that reality does not correspond to their bumper-sticker view of the world. Hillary Clinton was once a Goldwater Republican.

What kinds of clichés do I have in mind? Limbaugh’s perennial mantra about how “liberal Democrats want to keep poor people poor so that they will be dependent on government programs” is a good example. Limbaugh knows that is not true. No doubt, there are Democratic Party operatives who discuss in back rooms the things that must be done at election time to mobilize the recipients of government wealth redistribution programs. But that is a far cry from wanting to “keep them poor.” Come on: Liberal Democrats don’t think that way; they do not conspire to make sure the poor never get off welfare. There is a lot to criticize about people like Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, but that is not what they are all about.

There is a fair charge in this regard to make against liberal Democrats: that they are the party of government, with an excessive and ill-founded confidence in government programs to lift people out of poverty. One can argue intelligently that the record of government programs from the New Deal through the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson is a failure; that the poor would be far better off today if a low-tax, pro-growth environment had been promoted by the federal government, instead of all the wealth redistribution programs favored by big-government Democrats. That charge can be defended in an intelligent debate; that liberals want to keep the poor poor cannot.

Are the left-wing terrible simplifiers any better? I think they are worse, but that may be my political bias showing. We can use Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen to make the point. Quindlen, a Catholic fond of linking the Church’s social teachings to the Democrat’s wealth redistribution programs, would have us believe she is a serious thinker, a straight-shooter and not just some tub-thumper for the Democratic Party.

Yet consider a recent column. In it, Quindlen identified the Democratic Party as the party that stands for “a living wage for working people, equal access regardless of race or gender, freedom from overbearing government, and help for the needy.” I submit that this statement is meaningless, unless it is meant to imply that the Republicans are on the other side of these issues: that they are not for a living wage, are opposed to equal access to women and minorities, that they favor an oppressive an intrusive federal government and are indifferent to the plight of the disadvantaged. That’s baloney.

The Republicans are not for a living wage? That is not what Republicans say. They argue that the free-market theories they favor are what have generated the jobs in this country that attract all the illegal immigrants from the countries with managed economies based on the economic theories favored by liberal Democrats.

The Republicans are not for equal access regardless of race and gender? Says who? “Equal access” is the goal of conservative Republicans who oppose racial quotas and affirmative action programs that give preferences based on race and gender; that is what Republicans mean by a “color-blind” society.

Conservatives favor an “overbearing government”? In what way? Conservative journals since the 1950s have been arguing the case for limited government, for federalism, states’ rights, and private property rights, and against federal judges legislating from the bench. Catholic conservatives have been beating the drums for limiting the size of the central government through the principle of subsidiarity since the 19th century. What can Quindlen mean?

We know what she means. She considers the federal government overbearing when the question is whether its powers should be used to limit abortion and prohibit homosexual marriages. “Overbearing” is the last word she would use when federal power is implemented to advance the liberal agenda on race, poverty and feminist causes.

Is Quindlen aware that she is being unfair in her portrayal of conservative Republicans? Is she consciously engaging in political spin? Or does she really live in a world of humanitarian liberals and greedy, racist, homophobe Republicans? I am not sure. I have spent my entire adult life trying to figure out what makes liberals tick. My point just now is only that, for whatever reason, she is a simplifier; that it would be fairer and more insightful for her to argue that there is a need for big government because the free-market approach favored by conservatives has proven inadequate, than to rely on one-dimensional Democratic Party talking points to make her case.

It is probably too much to ask modern political commentators to make their case in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas would first explain the position of his opponents at its best, as his opponents would argue it. No straw men. Then he would take it apart and propose his alternative line of reasoning. In this way, he could assure his readers that he was in search of the truth, rather than just scoring points.

Perhaps the modern gurus have to argue their cases in sound bites and clever epigrams, to look to score points. The talk programs and newsweeklies cannot survive if they do not entertain their audience. The term used for this segment of the media is revealing: “infotainment.” Those of us who partake of it must be alert to what it is all about. It can be fun to listen to our favorite guru needle the opposition. But we must be alert to the difference between a clever wisecrack and intelligent political analysis. Wisecracks work only until someone forces us to think them through.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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