An opportunity to break free of epistemic closure

Updated
Why the right never saw this coming.
Why the right never saw this coming.
Associated Press

One of the most striking aspects of the last couple of days is noticing how surprised Republicans are by President Obama’s victory. Many on the right simply seem floored, as if the president’s defeat were such an obvious inevitability, they never imagined anything to the contrary.

Paul Glastris flagged an interesting item from the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, highlighting “how stunned so many of Romney’s supporters were.” York added that these Republicans “said they were influenced by the prominent conservatives who predicted a big Romney win, and they fully expected Tuesday night to be a victory celebration. “

Conor Friedersdorf added that rank-and-file conservatives, who operated from a “self-imposed information disadvantage,” should probably ask themselves “Why were we the last to realize that things were going wrong for us?”

If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thing; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what? You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

We’ve talked before about epistemic closure, but the last several months offer a rather profound example of the phenomenon, and why those stuck in this bubble aren’t doing themselves any favors.

For many of the voters stunned by the election results, objective information is easily – and deliberately – avoided. They read a conservative newspaper in the morning, listened to conservative talk radio during the day, come home and watched Fox News before going to bed.

In epistemic closure, folks in a closed environment essentially get new information from one another, and for the last several months, conservative leaders, activists, and voters were all telling themselves and each other that President Obama is a horrific monster who would be crushed by a resurgent republic rebelling against his tyrannical radicalism.

What about polls showing the president favored to win? They were skewed, the right said. What about experts pointing to Obama’s structural advantages? They were from liberal schools with liberal degrees and weren’t to be trusted, the right added. What about the drop in the unemployment rate? That was the result of a conspiracy, the right insisted. What about analyses showing the president isn’t really a radical, but is actually a mainstream, center-left technocrat pursuing ideas that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support? That was just madness, the right scoffed.

For conservatives, the Affordable Care Act is a “government takeover” of heath care (it’s not); the deficit, taxes, and government spending went up under Obama (they didn’t); and the economy is worse than it was four years ago (it’s not). Why did Republicans believe this? Because everyone else on the right told them this is true.

Which is precisely why Tuesday night came as something of a shock.

Looking ahead, then, this seems like an ideal time for the right to consider whether the bubble has served them well. Conservatives who assumed Romney/Ryan would win because they were told he would win might want to pause, ponder, and decide whether they want actual information or propaganda carefully packed to make them feel better. The latter is certainly political candy, but as was the case late Tuesday night, the sugar high doesn’t last, and it leads to a nasty headache.

Friedersdorf added, “On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right. Hint: The Timeshired the most rigorous forecaster it could find. It ought to be an eye-opening moment.”

Yes, it ought to be, but whether it is remains to be seen. With this larger point in mind, I sure hope everyone saw last night’s A block.

For those who can’t watch clips online, here’s Rachel’s conclusion:

“Ohio really did go to President Obama last night. And he really did win. And he really was born in Hawaii. And he really is legitimately president of the United States, again.

“And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month. And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy. And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats. And Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad. Nate Silver was doing math.

“And climate change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing.

“And Benghazi was an attack on us, it was not a scandal by us. And nobody is taking away anyone`s guns. And taxes have not gone up. And the deficit is dropping, actually.

“And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the moon landing was real. And FEMA is not building concentration camps. And U.N. election observers are not taking over Texas. And moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as communism.

“Listen, last night was a good night for liberals and for Democrats for very obvious reasons, but it was also, possibly, a good night for this country as a whole, because in this country, we have a two-party system in government. And the idea is supposed to be that the two sides, both come up with ways to confront and fix the real problems facing our country. They both propose possible solutions to our real problems. And we debate between those possible solutions.

“And by the process of debate, we pick the best idea. That competition between good ideas from both sides about real problems in the real country should result in our country having better choices, better options, than if only one side is really working on the hard stuff.

“And if the Republican Party and the conservative movement and the conservative media is stuck in a vacuum-sealed door-locked spin cycle of telling each other what makes them feel good and denying the factual, lived truth of the world, then we are all deprived as a nation of the constructive debate about competing feasible ideas about real problems.

“Last night the Republicans got shellacked, and they had no idea it was coming. And we saw them in real time, in real humiliating time, not believe it, even as it was happening to them.

“And unless they are going to secede, they are going to have to pop the factual bubble they have been so happy living inside if they do not want to get shellacked again. And that will be a painful process for them, but it will be good for the whole country, left, right, and center. You guys, we`re counting on you. Wake up.

“There are real problems in the world. There are real, knowable facts in the world. Let`s accept those and talk about how we might approach our problems differently. Let`s move on from there.

“If the Republican Party and the conservative movement and conservative media are forced to do that by the humiliation they were dealt last night, we will all be better off as a nation. And in that spirit, congratulations, everybody. Big night.”

Barack Obama and Obamacare

An opportunity to break free of epistemic closure

Updated