Conservatives exempted themselves from the reality-based community
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. – Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004
Josh Marshall writes that he’s “dumbfounded” by the way the Romney campaign – and the Republican party at large – were operating in their own alternate reality with regard to polling numbers for the election.
For now, that’s really the only speculation I have since nothing else makes sense. But I do find it genuinely disturbing that this cocooning was apparently so profound that none of these folks seemed to be troubled by the fact that no other public polling organization but Rasmussen was generating numbers anything like theirs.
But he really shouldn’t be dumbfounded.
Back in 2004, Ron Suskind led off his soon-to-be-famous piece with this anecdote:
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that “if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3. The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
Of course, Bush won in 2004. But the “civil war” that Bartlett warned about had already been lost.
We’ve seen this in the tax policies and economic “debates” over the last decade or so. We’ve seen it in the birther movement. We’ve seen this in the Global Warming Truther movement, and in teaching creationism, and in the general war on science. But the most obvious example is in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Here’s what Marshall wrote this morning:
So there’s no access to special information about voter turnout strategies that Democrats were using. Everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY — basically had this right except for Republican pollsters. That makes it more than just a bad call. Because what are the odds that every other public pollster, presumably indifferent to the partisan advantage of the result, did not make this same mistake?
Is there any part of that paragraph that can’t be applied to the “weapons of mass destruction” debate? There was no “special information” about Iraqi WMD programs that the rest of the reality-based community was using while the Bush administration – with a large amount of assistance from the press – got it wrong. Colin Powell’s special information about mobile chemical labs or vials of anthrax turned out to be spectacularly wrong. And Condoleezza Rice’s special information about a “smoking gun” turned out to be no more than smoke and mirrors. If you only relied on “sexed-up” dossiers and Ahmed Chalabi and yellowcake exaggerations, then you were as wrong as those pollsters who relied on “extremely likely voters”.
You didn’t need top-level security clearance to see the holes in the WMD argument. You didn’t need to “unskew” the intelligence reports, or decades of reporting, or IAEA investigations. And it turned out that the intelligence agencies and the inspectors mostly got it right, while the people who claimed to have “special information” got it wrong.
In fact, I’d say the parallels go even farther. In both cases, the press deliberately downplayed any evidence that the “special information” might be wrong.
In 2002, the right-wing echo chamber followed the lead of top GOP officials in pushing “special information” about WMDs. And the major media followed them, discounting much of their own reporting in the process.
In 2012, the right-wing echo chamber followed the lead of the Romney campaign and other top GOP officials in pushing “special information” about voter turnout models. And the major media followed them, discounting much of their own polling in the process.
There have been some changes over the last 10 years – for example, Judith Miller went from being a major media figure who dutifully followed the drumbeat of the right-wing echo chamber, to being a member of that right-wing echo chamber. And MSNBC didn’t fire anyone for questioning the right-wing “special information” this time around.
But there haven’t been enough changes to justify Josh Marshall’s surprise.
Update: I hadn’t seen this until I came across a reference to it today, but I think it underlines my point above quite well. Look at the language that Romney spokesman Lenny Alcivar uses in this Breitbart piece from June (emphasis added):
Alcivar, who took a leave from the groundbreaking and influential Hynes Communications to work for the Romney campaign, sees a major shift in how the media works:
When this election is over, one of the lessons that will be learned by the mainstream media is that they no longer have a toe-hold on how Americans receive their news. Never before – in a way that has taken Democrats off stride – have we seen the confluence of an aggressive online community, led by Breitbart, and an aggressive campaign team not willing to cede an inch of ground to Democrats. This combination has created a new political reality. We no longer allow the mainstream media to define the political realities in America. The rise of Breitbart, Drudge and others, combined with an aggressive Romney campaign is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the conservative movement.
- Paul Bibeau, “A Message To America From Reality“
Your pundits are great at this: Because of cable and the Internet, they no longer tell you the news. What they do is sell you a product, and that product is a convincing story to make your own personal truth justifiable. Whether you want to believe that 9/11 was an inside job or that Obama’s a Kenyan socialist, or climate change is not happening… you can find someone selling it somewhere. But every once in awhile I step in. And that’s a great thing. It’s an opportunity. Don’t miss it, okay?
- Fred Clark, “‘Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows“
Stetzer is the chief number-cruncher for the Southern Baptist Convention. (You can think of him as the Southern Baptists’ Nate Silver.) Stetzer measures things and reports on those measurements, that’s his job. That job requires Stetzer to seek and to respect facts, otherwise, what’s the point? This put Stetzer in an awkward position throughout the anti-pollster, anti-fact wave of evangelical politics ca. 2012.
I think the business model theory works, but I would suggest that the problem lies not just with outlets like Fox but also with their audiences. That is, I think my original tweet, blaming the conservative media for misleading the readers who depend on them, doesn’t capture the fullness of the problem. Conservative media lies to its audience because much of its audience wants to be lied to. Those lies actually have far more drastic consequences for governance (think birthers and death panels) than for elections, where the results can’t be, for lack of a better word, “skewed.”