Kevin McCarthy, Benghazi, and the Knowledge Problem

Are conservatives co-opting expertise or trying to eliminate it altogether?

By Nathan Pippenger

I have another piece out today considering John Boehner’s efforts to corral a raucous Republican caucus, so it seems appropriate to consider the recent hubbub surrounding his once-presumptive successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy’s campaign for Speaker was disrupted last week when, in one boastful question, he undid three years of efforts to legitimize the GOP’s Benghazi conspiracy-theorizing: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” Explaining himself in what was probably an attempt to court the conservatives who so distrusted Boehner, he elaborated that because “we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee,” Hillary Clinton’s “numbers are dropping.” The admission has conservatives apoplectic: Kathleen Parker warns that the “consequences of McCarthy’s sleight of tongue can’t be overstated” and deems the slip-up a “self-inflicted, potentially fatal wound” not only to his Speaker campaign, but to the GOP in 2016. And in the wake of McCarthy’s remarks, Rep. Jason Chaffetz—two days after publicly backing McCarthy for Speaker—announced a risky, long-shot campaign to challenge him for the post. Everybody’s talking about the electoral implications, but in the long run, the epistemic ones are just as important.

Such problems have been a frequent theme on this blog: the reliability of think tank research, the dilemmas facing journalists caught between accuracy and the appearance of even-handedness, the corrupting influence of native content, the conservative attacks on official government statistics. Wise decisions require not only the existence of reliable information, but effective means of communicating, disseminating, and assessing that information. This presumes the existence of institutions which are widely recognized for their integrity as either producers, communicators, or interpreters of knowledge. When, as citizens, we begin evaluating issues by looking at “just the facts,” what we’re really relying on is an extraordinarily complex apparatus of people and institutions that make (reasonably) accurate reception of information possible in the first place.

In practice, of course, this requires a working knowledge of which institutions are trustworthy, and even which parts of which institutions. Readers not only need to know the difference between the Washington Post and the Washington Times, but the difference between the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom and its editorial board. As the issues in question grow in technical complexity, this task becomes even more difficult. It’s not surprising that many (if not most) voters find themselves resorting to rough heuristics—like “someone on CNN said so”—to judge the reliability of things they read and hear.

This practice, unfortunately, creates myriad opportunities for demagogues and cynics to take advantage of institutional reputation. The realization that credibility matters more than accuracy is what motivates the creation of industry-funded “think tanks” staffed with hacks, or the brazen attempts to spout misinformation on Sunday talk shows—with the full knowledge that even if a misstatement is corrected on air, the damage will already have been done.

It’s possible to interpret McCarthy’s action in precisely this way: by (almost) admitting outright that the Benghazi Select Committee exists to torpedo Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, McCarthy demonstrated his understanding that the authority of the federal government, too, can be coopted to promulgate misinformation. Its very complexity makes it ideal for the job: most voters, seeing “Congressional committee,” likely assign it the same credibility as a report from the Congressional Research Service or new numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (if they register the difference at all). It takes a reasonably detailed knowledge of the federal government to master the relevant institutional distinctions, and the creation of partisan committees designed to produce politically-useful pseudoknowledge exploits that very fact.

This theory does not, however, explain the totality of conservative behavior vis-à-vis the credibility of the federal government. How, for instance, is it consistent to undermine the government’s credibility on jobs numbers, yet seek to exploit that same credibility on Benghazi? You could explain the problem away by saying that the conservative moment has very little interest in consistency, but there’s a still more radical possibility. The more radical approach to misinformation doesn’t seek to coopt expertise; it seeks to eliminate it altogether. If this is right, then the relevant fact about the Benghazi Select Committee isn’t that it’s a Congressional committee—it’s that the leaders are “our people.” And the problem with the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that it’s run by “Obama’s people.”

It’s not clear which account best captures the logic behind the Benghazi Committee. Other conservatives, for what it’s worth, are less keen to dissolve the notion of expertise altogether—that’s why the Koch brothers, for instance, are pouring money into university economics departments. The risks posed by donations of that sort can be mitigated through better transparency and the strict enforcement of safeguards promoting institutional integrity. But tools like that are useless if skeptics reject the authority of expertise in general. Political debate has few defenses against the epistemically-leveling belief that when it comes to evaluating information, tribal affiliations are the heuristic that matters most.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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