Noah Millman has a thorough piece on the origins of conservative epistemic closure. He lists several possible causes, but, while these aren’t not wrong or dumb, he misses the big one. Conservatism is epistemically closed because conservative philosophical/hypothetical arguments have proved effective politically; conservatism is epistemically closed because it can be.
There’s a temptation to say that conservatives deal in anecdotes, while liberals deal in data. Irving Kristol famously claimed a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. That isn’t right, though; it’s more accurate to say that a neoconservative is a liberal who saw a mugging on the local news or, better yet, a liberal who contemplated the hypothetical possibility of being mugged.
The strapping young buck buying T-bone steaks with food stamps is a philosophical construct not an empirical fact. How many young bucks bought T-bone steaks with welfare checks last year? That’s like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s not just that we can’t count the young bucks it’s that the actual existence or nonexistence of even a single young buck is secondary (at best) to the role the buck plays within a specific, politically potent thought structure.
Look at how many conservative arguments involve hypotheticals. The ticking bomb scenario. The smoking gun that we hope isn’t a mushroom cloud. What if the government came for your guns.
Yet, these arguments have great power. The T-bone buying young buck is probably the most powerful image in American politics, infinitely more powerful than studies on how many tens of thousands of Americans die because of lack of access to health insurance. Our entire foreign policy from 2002 to 2008 was based on a “one percent doctrine” about weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
There is no liberal analog of the young buck or the ticking bomb. Liberals need to cite CBO scores to justify reforming the most unfair, inefficient, and inhumane medical system in the word. And even when liberals are armed with CBO scores, along with endless stories of cancer victims being denied coverage for no reason, conservatives can fight them to a draw simply by yelling “My freedom, your fraud!”.
That’s not to say that every Republican slogan works. Field mice! Bear DNA! (Though maybe the problem here is that these are actual anecdotes and not some religious fairy tales that Peggy Noonan made up.) It’s also true that Republicans are not doing well politically. They’re a minority party and are likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Still, they do a lot better than Democrats would do if Democrats forsook reality. Anyway, political success may be beside the point: epistemic closure suits the staff of the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Fox just fine.
Conservatives will always be tempted to move from the empirical arena to the philosophical one, even when they are trying to be intellectually honest. Bobo’s Hume/Bentham column is a classic example; it says, essentially, “I tried to sort through the climate data and it was complicated, so fuck it, FREE MARKETS!”. That’s nothing more than a totebag-friendly version of a Lee Greenwood song, even if it began as a real attempt to come to grips with the issue.
Maybe liberals would do the same if there were a simplistic, closed liberal mythology/belief system that had a solid political track record. But there isn’t one. Some liberals believe we should build one up — that’s what the Overton windows stuff is really about.
In the end, there is probably no way that a political movement can continue to engage in reality-based thought once it has had sufficient success with fairy tales, hypotheticals, and quasi-philosophical musings.