Negative Counterfactuals and Know-Nothings: Paul Krugman Reminds Us That Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Apologies for the long hiatus from posting.  Between grading finals, being out of town, and working on my new book manuscript, I've neglected to comment much on the world of "what if?" lately.

In the spirit of getting back in the swing of things, I thought I'd reflect a bit on a truism that we're all familiar with: "absence makes the heart grow fonder."

Social scientists have verified this theory empirically.

But it’s clear that counterfactuals do so as well.

I was reminded of this by Paul Krugman’s recent op-ed, “Know-Nothings for the 21st Century,” in the New York Times.

It discusses the immigration policies of the Trump administration as a present-day version of the mid-19th century, anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” movement, which exploited American fears about Irish and German immigrants.

He writes:

“Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.”

He adds that:

“But today’s Republicans…aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening….Conservatives…have soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.”

In order to alert readers to the danger of this development, Krugman seeks to remind them of the contributions that immigrants and education have made to American life.

But in a telling rhetorical move, he does so not by stressing the direct positive effects that they actually had, but by highlighting the negative effects that their absence would have had.

He writes:

“Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.”

“And that’s what we’ll become if modern know-nothingism prevails.”

Krugman’s claim suggests that imagining the absence of something can get people to appreciate what they would otherwise take for granted.

It confirms that using negative counterfactuals to imagine the un-doing or non-occurrence of key events can be an analytically and rhetorically powerful method of argumentation.