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Piercing the Republican Epistemic Bubble

I’ve written some overarching thoughts about last week’s presidential election, but I wanted to dwell on one of its more fascinating aspects: the extent to which the Republican party was blindsided by the outcome. Going into Tuesday, countless Republicans had predicted a solid victory for Mitt Romney, and it’s clear that this wasn’t just a political ploy to sway media coverage. On the contrary, Republicans at every level sincerely believed this – ordinary voters, professional pundits, and apparently even the candidate himself. Their unfeigned shock, bewilderment, and grief over Barack Obama’s overwhelming electoral victory is more than sufficient evidence.

But there was no reason why they should have been surprised, because the outcome of this election was completely foreseeable. For months in advance, polls consistently showed that President Obama had a small but durable lead in enough swing states to win, which is why political scientists and polling gurus like Nate Silver gave him a better than 90% chance of reelection. (Silver called 49 of 50 states correctly in 2008, but right-wing pundits brushed this off as a fluke, asserting that he couldn’t possibly be trusted because he was “effeminate“. This time, he got 50 of 50 right.)

What this shows, I think, is how cut off from reality the GOP is. The right wing has spent a long time developing its own media structure, from direct mail to talk radio to Fox News, which they encourage their followers to trust to the exclusion of all other sources. In this they’ve succeeded, but the unintended consequence is that they’ve cocooned themselves in a bubble of self-delusion, a walled garden of epistemic isolation. Unaccustomed to hearing from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they see it, they really believed it was self-evident that Barack Obama was a total disaster of a president. And this web ensnared even the people who built it in the first place, which gave rise to epic punditry failures like Dick Morris’ humiliating landslide prediction, Peggy Noonan’s absurdly premature gloating, or Karl Rove’s memorable election-night on-air meltdown.

The GOP’s self-confidence was so unwavering that, I’ll admit it, it even made me worry a little. On Election Day, my mood oscillated back and forth in an internal conflict between my cool, rational, scientific brain – the polls show we’re ahead, these results are well-tested and repeatable, we’re in as strong a position as you could hope for – and the irrational, panic-prone lizard brain – but the other side is so confident! how could that be if they’re seeing the same evidence as us? what do they know that we don’t?

But in the end, their boasting proved to be pure self-delusion, no different than Harold Camping‘s utter certainty that he’d found the secret biblical codes which told him the date of the Rapture. Their confidence really was based on nothing more than wishful thinking. It’s the most dramatic example yet of what atheists always say, that mere subjective conviction isn’t the same as genuine insight into how the world really is. And I think it likely that the religious right’s dominance of the Republican party, their exaltation of a worldview in which unquestioning faith is the highest virtue, makes them especially prone to errors of this kind.

Whatever our other flaws, this is something that doesn’t happen to liberals and progressives. If anything, I think we’re prone to the opposite fallacy, chronic pessimism and premature despair. In the weeks before the election, I was getting fed up with progressives who agonized that Obama had thrown the election away because of some minor misstep. (Remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth after the first presidential debate, despite clear historical evidence that debates have never changed the outcome of an election?)

As I’ve said, I’d be happy if the Republicans could cast off their bitter and bigoted faction and become a rational party again, but it’s hard to see how they could achieve that. The very defect that’s laid them low also makes it almost impossible for them to engage in the painfully honest self-critique they need in order to do better next time. For one thing, for them to broaden their appeal to Democratic constituencies like women and Hispanics, they’d need to understand why those groups vote Democratic in the first place – something that, to date, they’ve shown absolutely no willingness to do. Instead, the usual conservative voices have engaged in insulting cartoon rhetoric like “minorities are moochers who just want government handouts!” or “women vote for Obama so they can slut it up with their free birth control!

But as the reality of this election sinks in, it may yet prove to be the irresistible force that crashes through the GOP’s bubble of epistemic closure and lets the daylight in. It could give a prophetic cast to those few voices of reason left in the party who can recognize how badly they’ve gone astray. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this loss will only empower those who retreat deeper into the bubble and insist on ever-greater ideological purity and rigidity. The next few election cycles will tell us which of these two approaches – bending to reality or clinging to delusion – will end up gaining the upper hand.

Image credit: Brocken Inaglory, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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