When your side loses an election, you can interpret the results in a number of ways. You can decide that the public was fooled, or made their choice on the basis of poorly chosen criteria, like which candidate was better looking. Or you can decide that your side didn't actually lose the election at all, but that the whole thing was rigged. The victory was yours, but a conspiracy kept the truth from being known.
This view is more common than you might think, and it isn't always completely unreasonable, given what an abominable mess we know our elections to be. But sometimes it strains credulity: A poll taken in 2009 showed that an astonishing 52 percent of Republicans believed that Barack Obama's 7-point win over John McCain was actually a McCain victory, but ACORN stole the election for Obama.
And of late, Republicans are exploring new realms of denial. When President Obama opened up a lead in the polls after the party conventions, conservatives began claiming that there must be something wrong with the polls. The conspiracy theory was kicked off by a site called unskwewedpolls.com, which alleges that every public poll, including those of organizations like Fox News, is "skewed" by pollsters intentionally trying to make their results look better for Barack Obama. So the site "unskews" them by recalculating their figures to make them more Romney-friendly.
Then when a positive jobs report for the month of September was released, conservatives simply refused to believe it. It just couldn't be that the economy was improving; instead, there had to be a conspiracy within the Obama administration to fudge the jobs numbers. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate that you can run one of America's largest corporations and still be an idiot, tweeted, "Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers."
Fox News quickly picked up the charge, alleging that the White House must have pressured the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make up good numbers to help the president's campaign. Welch went on Fox News to elaborate, saying "These numbers don't smell right when you think about where the economy is right now." Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that the figures couldn't possibly be true. "There's no evidence of any job creation. You'd sense it. You would know it. You would feel it." Sure, you can have your "data" and your "facts," but Jack Welch knows what he smells, and Rush Limbaugh knows what he feels. "I don’'t believe the number and neither do any of the other people that have intelligence," came the verdict from well-known smart person Donald Trump.
Faced with the cognitive dissonance created by their need to believe that everything Barack Obama touches must necessarily turn to crap, many conservatives simply cannot fathom that voters might re-elect Obama, or that the economy might actually be improving. It simply cannot be true. Perhaps the new "jobs trutherism" and "poll trutherism" were enabled by the fact that so many conservatives embraced climate change trutherism. Incredible as it is, many Republicans believe that literally thousands of scientists all over the world are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool us all into thinking the planet is warming. And why wouldn't they, when their trusted media figures like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity tell them that over and over again? As Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well known liberal bias.
Like so many examples of conservative craziness, this does not have an analogue on the left. I'm not saying you can't find conspiracy theories among liberals, but to find them you have to look pretty far down the food chain. You have to go deep into the comments on liberal web sites or find an obscure blogger who will tell you that reality isn't as it seems. On the conservative side, on the other hand, you can find the insanity among writers at well-funded magazines, employees of established think tanks, and even members of Congress. And the conservative media from which these people get their news are more than happy to propagate any insane theory so long as it seems to make things look better for the right.
It may be fun to laugh at the conspiracy theories on jobs numbers, like those on polls and climate change, but we shouldn't let the rampaging stupidity blind us to the damage they can do. The truth is that this stuff is poison. It makes it infinitely more difficult to have anything resembling an informed debate about important issues. If we can't agree on what the facts are, then we can't have a real discussion about which course we should take, and that hurts us all.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines