Everybody Is Delusional: On Poll Denialism and Echo Chambers

A bit of controversy has been going around lately with the so-called “Poll Denialists.” These are Republicans and conservatives who believe that Romney’s current poll numbers, lagging Obama’s, are somehow false, a scheme by pollsters to deliberately skew the election towards an Obama victory, and are trying to explain it away with…well, I’m not sure what.

Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard mostly sums it up with “the polls are oversampling Democrats.” Robert Stacy McCain of The American Spectator just thinks it’s beyond any reason to believe that Obama is leading. And there is an entire website called “unskewedpolls.com” dedicated to finding the “true numbers” behind the polls.

This is pretty much balderdash, based on bad assumptions of how polling works and just plain fantasy. Stephen L. Taylor of Outside the Beltway focuses on the latter when he says:

There has been, as many have noted, a long-term problem within certain elements of the Republican base, and that is its tendency to live within a very specific media bubble.  If one consumes huge amounts of conservative talk radio and Fox News, then one is going to have a very specific view of the world.  And it is not just that these outlets have an ideological point of view, it is that most of the programming is commentary and not news reporting.  Further, it needs to be understood that these media outlets are oriented towards entertainment first and foremost, not news and information.  This is, of course, generically true of all for profit media (although it is especially true for talk radio and cable news regardless of ideological disposition).  This fact, however, should help highlight the fact that the goal of Limbaugh, et al. is not to inform or educate, it is to keep the listener/viewer listening/watching so that they can sell commercial time (Limbaugh’s job is to sell Sleep Number beds, or whatever he is hawking these days, not to inform, or even to get Republicans elected).  As such:  what is likely to keep a conservative tuned in:  a dispassionate discussion of poll numbers, or suggestions that the bad numbers for Romney are, in fact, wrong?

This bubble reality can be empirically demonstrated.  For example, a January pollindicated that 37% of Republicans did not think that Obama was born in the US and 35% were “not sure.”  Only 27% of those polled thought that he was born in the US.  And this was, by the way, after release of the birth certificate by the president.  This is reality denial in the face of overwhelming evidence by a stunning percentage of a particular group.  Likewise, 30% of Republicans think that Obama is Muslim.  Further, the entire meme that Obama is the most liberal president ever is created by over-exposure to a very narrow set of media actors.

This gets to the polling issue directly because poll denial, and the notion of “unskewing,” is deeply linked to the notion that the media are all not only biased against Republicans, but actively involved in a conspiracy to misreport basic facts about  American politics.

Those numbers are very disturbing. That almost two-fifths of Republicans think Obama is not a native-born American, and nearly a third believe he is a Muslim, would be mystifying if they were not so insanely discomforting. This is truly a different world that these folks live in, one that is not connecting with the one everybody else lives in.

Taylor goes on to write:

The basic point of all of this is:  if we cannot agree on what basic reality is, we cannot govern ourselves.  Indeed, if there is one basic explanation for the fact that I no longer adhere to the Republican Party it is that the vast majority of the party’s candidates, commentators, and supporters have abandoned the notion that reality is reality.  Specifically:  tax cuts do not, in fact, always create GDP growth (we have empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates this fact—see the Bush tax cuts), American power cannot always shape the international system to US preferences (see:  Iraq and Afghanistan), there is climate change (see all the data), and so forth.  I will note:  there are real debates to be had about how to deal with these, and other, issues, but we all have to at agree on the fact that a debate needs to take place.    We can debate what to do about the climate and what the the appropriate level of taxes should be, but simply denying that there is climate change is not a policy. Asserting that tax cuts will lead to growth has no basis in reality.

I pretty much agree with this; we need to agree on what is actually happening, have some sort of universal foundation, for any debate or discussion about the problems taking place to actually happen. Otherwise, we’re tilting at windmills. But here, Taylor gives away his own bias, and leads me on to my point: this is not just a Republican/conservative thing. (Granted, Taylor acknowledges the left has problems, he just didn’t get into them, which is understandable.)

Consider that liberals think the rich should pay more money, their “fair share.” But when you look at the numbers, the rich actually pay the most taxes. Or consider the usual talking points about how “trickle-down economics” never helped anybody or the economy, or that “tax cuts will lead to growth has no basis in reality.” But when you look at the data, President Reagan’s tax-cutting plan led to substantial job growth and greatly strengthened our economy, leading to the prosperity of the nineties. To say that it didn’t is the height of fantasy. Well, actually, I take that back: saying that Keynesian stimulus is exactly what we need, and that the last four years have proved it, is the height of fantasy. (For a link, just read Paul Krugman’s blog.)

This is truly a “both sides do it” thing. Both conservatives and liberals exist in their own fantasy worlds, cherry picking the data to support their preconceived assumptions, and doing nothing that would even remotely allow them to see beyond that. It’s like watching two mental patients argue if bananas or Brita water filters would be better at being a hyperintelligent shade of the color blue. It’s utter madness.

Only libertarians seem to be working in the real world, dealing with actual facts on the ground rather than fantastical playthings. For all the talk about how we are “market fundamentalists,” we’re the only sane ones. Considering how we’re a relatively small portion of the American population, this is extremely depressing. But nobody wants to deal with reality anymore. They want to pretend it depends entirely on their views, not the other way around. Subjectivity has run amok.

I don’t know how to change this, but I do know that we have to. Otherwise, we’re going to be in a very bad state in a few years.

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