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Krugman, Ryan, and Civil Debate

Clive Cook, over at Bloomberg View, did a particularly good job last week of articulating one of the central dilemmas that face many of us who are interested in civility within the landscape of our highly charged political present. His article, “Krugman’s Wrong: Civility Isn’t Stupid,” looks at one of the biggest players and one of the most common tropes in progressive politics in the United States; but his point is well made, and equally applicable among conservatives.

The dilemma is this: is it ever acceptable to take a break from civility and launch an ad hominem attack on a political opponent? Especially when it is apparent, from your perspective, that that opponent is acting in bad faith?

Cook (rightly, we think) says that it is not. And though Cook defends economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman against critics who accuse Krugman of calling Representative Paul Ryan stupid (he didn’t), he is rightly critical of Krugman’s tendency, as he puts it, to become too easily exasperated … and much too quick to see bad faith (mostly on the opposing side, rarely on his own).

All of this stems from a recent column, “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” and a blog post that Krugman made as a follow-up called “Con Men Aren’t Stupid.” In the latter, he dismisses civility, saying that he has documented [Paul] Ryan’s many cons very extensively, showing in particular that his budgets were sold on false pretenses. And that if it is his job to inform readers about what’s going on, then the attempt to sell right-wing goals under false pretenses is an important part of the story.

Cook’s point in his response at Bloomberg View is that while that may be true in a limited way, it is also profoundly counterproductive. He writes:

The problem with [Krugman’s] view on civility is that without a minimum of mutual respect, debate degenerates into a useless squabble, which is what U.S. politics has become. In a functioning democracy, deals have to be struck among groups with different views. Differences of opinion shouldn’t be suppressed, but if mutual disgust rises to the point where negotiation is no longer possible, everybody loses.

And he writes that if you begin from a position of contempt for your political opponent, you don’t expect to learn anything from him, and you lose your ear for finding what’s valuable in the arguments of people you disagree with.

Both are important points. Both characterize a regular feature in Krugman’s popular writing that undercuts analyses that are otherwise often well-conceived. And both offer a valuable lesson to conservative pundits, too, where ad hominem attacks — of the President, of Democratic leaders, and of media figures including Krugman himself — too often find enthusiastic voice.

There is a lesson to be learned in this: that though we may believe, under certain circumstances, that a break with civility is justified, more often, as Cook says, it’s mere self-indulgence. Ad hominem attacks are an exercise in letting off steam, or of riling up one’s own supporters. But they do not change minds. And they bring us no closer to the kind of productive (if occasionally contentious) debate that leads to compromise and ultimately to positive legislative outcomes.

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