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More on "Epistemic Closure"

28 Apr 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

This morning the New York Times published a story about the “epistemic closure” debate that I commented on earlier. Unfortunately, there was a small error in the Times that I wish to correct. It says that I was fired by the Heritage Foundation for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s abandonment of conservative principles. In fact, it was another conservative think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis that fired me, which the Times reported when it happened in 2005.

That said, I don’t mean to imply that Heritage is innocent of enforcing a doctrinaire approach to conservative thought that is at the heart of the epistemic closure debate. Let me mention three incidents.
First, back in 2006 Heritage had a big dinner honoring the 25th anniversary of the Reagan tax cut of 1981. To my knowledge, every living person who played a significant role in the development and enactment of this legislation was invited with one conspicuous exception: me.
Heritage was perfectly well aware of my deep connection to the Reagan tax cut because I was a senior fellow at Heritage for three years in the 1980s. (For the record, I left on amicable terms in 1987 to take a job in the White House.) In 1977, while on Jack Kemp’s congressional staff, I had primary responsibility for drafting, promoting and getting cosponsors for the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which Reagan endorsed in the 1980 campaign and submitted to Congress, virtually unchanged, in 1981. I should note that my colleague here at CG&G, Pete Davis, was a big help while he was on the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation back in 1977.
Yet despite these facts, I was deemed unworthy of inclusion in the Heritage anniversary celebration. When I heard about it, I complained about not being invited and got some mealy mouthed response. I knew perfectly well that the only reason I was unwanted at the event is because of my criticism of George W. Bush. Of course, it goes without saying that it was perfectly entitled to invite whomever it pleased. But it was at least ungracious and unworthy of an institution I previously respected.
Incidentally, Heritage hosts an annual event for its former staff to which I was always invited before my Impostor book came out. I haven’t been invited since.
Another example of how social pressure is brought to bear against dissident conservatives occurred shortly after this incident and also involved Heritage. Ryan Sager, then a columnist for the conservative New York Post, published a book in 2006 called The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. His argument, similar to the one I made in my Impostor book, was that the Bush White House had abandoned the historical libertarian position of the Republican Party on many issues in pursuit of votes among anti-libertarian evangelicals.
Sager had been invited to talk to a group called the Prosperity Caucus, a loose-knit private group that meets about once a month in Washington to discuss economics and politics over pizza and beer. Usually, the group borrows a room on Capitol Hill or at a conservative think tank. As it had done often before, this particular month the Prosperity Caucus had booked a room at Heritage.
Even though Sager’s criticism of Bush was far milder than mine, he was deemed radioactive by Heritage, which canceled the Prosperity Caucus’s reservation and booted them out of the building when it came to its attention that Sager was speaking. (Here is Sager’s comment on the incident.) This led to some discussion among conservative bloggers that presaged the epistemic closure debate. Prominent conservative blogger Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds called it the “Kos-ification of the right.” (The reference is to “Daily Kos,” a web site often accused of enforcing the left-wing party line among Democrats.)
After criticism from conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan and others, Heritage issued this statement about the incidents involving Sager and me: “Failure to invite a non-member to a members-only event is not an exercise in blackballing. Declining to host an event when an alternative venue is available is not blackballing.”
I say, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s probably a duck. It’s obvious that Sager and I were blackballed.
Finally, there was another incident in 2006 that also demonstrated Heritage’s enforcement of party discipline. According to a report in the New Republic magazine by Spencer Ackerman, John Hulsman was fired as a foreign policy analyst at Heritage in July of that year for not toeing the party line on Iran and Iraq. Afterwards, Hulsman said, “I was a walking corpse” in the conservative community.
Once again, it goes without saying that Heritage had a perfect right to fire a staff person who was unable or unwilling to support its position on key issues. But the enforcement of such party discipline is unhealthy for any ideological movement and shows that think tanks can violate the intellectual freedom of their analysts in ways that would be unforgiveable at a university. It is for this reason that I recently suggested that conservative think tanks have more in common with lobbyists these days than academics.
I don’t mean to pick on Heritage—other conservative think tanks, publications and organizations are guilty of similar sins—but as the biggest and most powerful conservative institution in Washington it has outsized influence within the conservative community that bears on the epistemic closure debate. These incidents show that the enforcement of intellectual and political conformity among conservatives takes many different forms, sometimes subtle. They often involve purely social pressure—not being invited to receptions, dinners and conferences. As a virtual recluse, I am pretty much immune from such pressure, but many others are not. They would rather hold their tongue when they have issues with the party line than risk social estrangement from their friends and coworkers. At least in Washington, that’s a big part of what epistemic closure is all about.
These unhinged right wing attacks prove my point (here and here). Andrew Sullivan comments here.

Epistemic Closure

The traditional republican party is dead, slain by Fascists that masqueraded as Conservatives. Just go to:, or just type "Republican Fascism" into your search bar. They have adopted the Nazi propaganda "Big Lie" of Hitler and Goebbels, and they keep repeating it over and over trying to make the American citizens believe it.

What they have to offer the USA is "nothingness"!

They will not accept responsibility for their miserable failures in the 8 years of the Fascist Criminal Enterprise of cheney/puppet bush, and they will not help get America restored. They offer us "No" and "Obstruction"!

More on Epistemic Closure

In an era when conservatives vie ferociously to see who can out-scream and out-outlandish each other, you are one that I enjoy reading. I could disagree with every single thing you write, and still enjoy it. Thanks so much.

And thanks for the moderation queue. I'm getting so tired of reading garbage to find a few well-considered posts. If every site did this, the internet would be a much less disgusting place.

The first duty is to the truth

The problem with any kind of allegiance is that you can't know when you are wrong.

The truth has to be the most important thing. Lying for your cause, while possibly having some short-term benefits, is horrific to the members. If you are a member of X, doesn't it matter why? If the reasons you belong turn out to be wrong or lies, shouldn't you leave X?

Most people don't like this kind of self-reflection.

new jar for old whine?

Please explain how the concept of "epistemic closure" differs from "cognitive dissonance" or, for that matter, (I think this is Buckley's phrase), "invincible ignorance."

You ought not be too dismissive of the commissars. While the working and middle classes were denuded, the Republican elite were rewarded--with positions, titles, and boatloads of money. So what if the ship of state foundered? Bush got his.

Let's talk about conservative conventional wisdom

Instead of talking about how you and others have been shunned. Why not discuss how the ways conservative conventional wisdom has proved to be egregiously wrong. For instance, tax cuts do not pay for themselves. Or that an unregulated market will not regulate itself but be gamed by leaches to the point of destroying not only it's own market but the economy it works within. Or as a former conservative and former 25 year Republican voter I've been waiting for Europe's economic collapse since the 80s. How is it that our exported unregulated banking system seems to be what's precipitating the current euro turmoil?

Yeah there's epistemic closure on the right but what makes it an utter joke it's riddled with cognitive dissonance. It's as if most of the "elites" really do represent the stupid party.

This whole epistemic closure

This whole epistemic closure read was far more interesting the first time I read it in David Brock's book over a decade ago.

Moving to the right...

With only you and Sager coming out of the closet reporting on censorship/blackballing by today's conservative movement, one has to say that it is apparently very successful (in the suppression of views they held only a few years ago). It is a symptom of a longer process of self-proclaimed conservatives and the Republican Party moving to the right; those who were Republicans under Eisenhower would now fit in the center of the Democratic Party (and there is no left left). Could anybody imagine today's GOP proposing to build the Interstate Highway system? Or start the Clean Air Act and EPA (as Nixon did)? And your example shows that even supporters of Reagan are no longer welcome.--By comparison, the Democratic Party has no enforcement of any standards, see the 'Blue-dog' Democrat obstruction on health care,or Sen. Lieberman, or Sen. Nelson on Financial Industry reform. Today's U.S.A. has a remarkably limited spectrum of political debate.

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