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Mr. Spock’s Lament to Polarized Right America


In 2012, two of the most eminent Congressional scholars, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute, published an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say it: The Republicans are the Problem.”

A key quote:

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."(WP, April 27, 2012 emphasis added)

I’d note that the think tanks at which Ornstein and Mann reside no longer occupy the revered “above the fray” position that established their relevance to both sides of the aisle. They’ve now been eclipsed and obscured by the likes of the Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, Heartland Institute and myriad other “think tanks” that are little more than high-gloss propaganda mills. With big corporate money, it’s easy to attract people to provide ideological ammunition in an academic package.

But let’s get back to the idea of being “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science,” essentially the “reason” that I so want non-profits to start defending in earnest.

Let’s start with an area of science with which I’m most familiar – the social sciences. When it comes to what the social sciences could be contributing to policy solutions to advance social progress, we should be in a golden age. With the help of the brilliant translational writings of Daniel Kahneman, Dan and Chip Heath, Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and many others, social change advocates are getting a very good fix on what Ariely calls our “predictably irrational” human nature.

The result is a treasure trove of ways that smart policies can improve our behavior in ways helpful to us as individuals and to society as a whole. Yes, it seems a bit paradoxical that our understanding our all-too human tendency to fall short of the “rational man” model of economics represents a high point in the power of reason, but there it is.

The now-famous behavioral economics example of the huge impact of changing from an “opt-in” to “opt-out” 401k plan participation policy illustrates perfectly the dramatically positive effects (on retirement saving) of re-framing a choice to take advantage of our preference for same over change. But even more importantly, it shows how policies can achieve these great results with no intrusion on personal freedom. No mandate. No coercion. Not even a public education campaign.

So you would think that the social science that produces these marvelous fruits of highly relevant policy insights would be applauded by everyone, but especially Republicans. After all, these are the folks who emphasize the priority of personal freedom, personal responsibility and non-intrusive government. Social science is like a Republican Kirk's Mr. Spock, dispassionately offering ideas for "non-nanny" but effective policies based on clever Vulcan insights about our all-too-human proclivities.

But you would think wrong.

Here’s a quote from a recent newsletter from the president of Research!America, the organization that advocates for the priority of our public investment in science:

"The bad news: the House passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, featuring micromanagement of the National Science Foundation, including arbitrary cuts to social science and economics research." (emphasis added)

Social cause non-profits can’t be Spock for Republicans, providing what Thaler and Sunstein called “libertarian paternalistic” solutions, if the response is not just to ignore him, but to throw him off the Enterprise.

How can non-profits adapt to a polarized right Congress?

Stay tuned for my next post: "Influence is Bigger than Persuasion"

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