Monday, November 9, 2015

The Fox News Effect Is Real, and It's Killing the Republican Party

Fox News head Roger Ailes: Not sure he understands what he's done.
If he did, would he just do it all over again? Hard to say.

I've been a bit flummoxed watching the lies perpetrated by the GOP candidates, especially during the debates. It's actually developed into a routine: There's a debate, many of the candidates either lie or obfuscate or both, the fact-checkers circle like sharks, the candidates are called out, they then decry "gotcha" journalism, and the media nods and goes to sleep.

Where's the hunger for the truth? Beats me. So I'm flummoxed.

But what's cool is I'm not the only one, and smarter people than I am are on the job. There is a reason the GOP candidates lie and distort and get away with it. It's because the Republican Party has become the party of anti-knowledge, and their activist base doesn't think they're lying. Here's why:
In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.
Some common-sense philosophers have observed this point over the years. “Genuine ignorance is…profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” observed psychologist John Dewey…
At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old…
This explains why Ben Carson can say the wacky things he does. When he says that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain, it sounds sort of biblical and rings true to the religious right. When he says that God literally created the heavens and the Earth in six, 24-hour days, same thing. The religious right laps it up with a spoon. If he says he'd rather people die from gun violence than have our right to guns infringed, the gun nuts say fuck yeah! If Carson is called out for embellishing his biography, Carson can say it's the liberal media playing gotcha politics, and his popularity isn't harmed in the slightest. Those politically-correct, lying liberals!

It's clear to me that a big factor in this is Fox News, with an assist from conservative talk radio. Nancy Le Tourneau agrees:
That’s why I’d suggest that the root cause of an attraction to anti-knowledge was the creation of Fox News. What Murdoch managed to do with that network was to pose the proposition that facts were merely the liberal media at work. So on one side of the “debate” you have the conservative garage logic and on the other you have liberal facts. The rest of the media - in an attempt to prove they weren’t liberal - accepted this frame, giving credence to anti-knowledge as a legitimate position. That traps us into things like having to argue over whether the science of human’s contribution to climate change is real because denialism is given credence as the opposing conservative view.
So we end up with truthiness, as articulated by Stephen Colbert. We don't need facts to back up our ideology. We only need plausibility. Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. That might be why he wants to destroy the United States. He hates us. That's perfectly plausible. If talk radio hosts and Fox News panelists repeat this stuff often enough, it gains truthiness. After a while, it's just gotta be true.

So we end up with epistemic closure: We don't want information to invade our carefully concocted narrative, so we go where we're catered to. For the conservatives, it's Fox News. For the liberals, it's, well, that's where it stops. Modern journalism depends on the both-sides-do-it narrative, but there is no one place liberals go to have their narratives supported. Liberals shop the news pretty broadly, and end up facing the facts. And they aren't upset by them, at least not the way the people in the activist GOP base are.

Who are these people, this hardcore, right-wing Republican base often referred to as the Tea Party? They are white, male, high-school educated, religious zealots who feel they've "lost" the country and are squeezed in on all sides by a rapidly changing America. It's not what they expected to happen, and, boy, are they mad about it.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but essentially, the thrust of the past 50 years of American history has been the expansion of economic and political rights for women, people of color, LGBT Americans, immigrants and even citizens of foreign countries through free trade agreements and global economic competition. In other words, power that was once artificially “leveraged” to give outsize economic and political advantage to the few has been dispersed to broader swaths of the country and the rest of the world.
In reaction to these trends, Republican activists have quite intuitively mobilized to restore their old power and to “make America great again.” The election of our first African-American president, a massive economic recession, and the creation of a new entitlement through healthcare reform brought these Republican activists to the political forefront and gave the movement tremendous energy.
But as most of us realize, the drivers of the deleveraging are here to stay. Global economic competition isn’t going away, women aren’t going to withdraw from the workforce, and the continued diversification of our nation is only going to speed up. So as Republican activists have demanded that their elected representatives “releverage” their old power, they’ve butted up against the reality that the old America is long gone.
This isn't the America they bargained for, and they blame the leaders in Washington. Specifically, they blame the Republican leaders they elected. The Republican base is not getting what it wanted, and they're mad as hell about it.

So who can they turn to? Not establishment Republicans. Hence the rejection of Bush and the rest of the GOP politicians and the turn toward Trump and Carson (Carly Fiorina's fling was blunted by her ice-cold persona and stabbing statements later proved to be prevarications).

And some of them are reacting by dying. Seriously.
STARTING around the turn of the millennium, the United States experienced the most alarming change in mortality rates since the AIDS epidemic. This shift was caused, not by some dreadful new disease, but by drugs and alcohol and suicide — and it was concentrated among less-educated, late-middle-aged whites.
We had hints that something like this was happening. We knew suicide was increasing among the middle-aged, that white women without a high school degree were struggling with health issues, that opiate addiction was a plague in working-class communities. But we didn’t know it was all bad enough to send white death rates modestly upward in the richest nation in the world...
But if the problem is social liberalism and the welfare state, progressives object, then why is the working class death rate only rising starkly in the United States? In the more secular and socialist territory of the European Union, [study authors] Deaton and Case are at pains to note, white mortality rates have continued to decline.
This buttresses the longstanding liberal argument that the American working class has fallen victim, not to dependency and libertinism, but to a punishing economic climate — stagnant wages, a fraying safety net, and Republican economic policies that redistribute wealth upward. Hence the European contrast: If we had the same institutions as France and Germany, our working class might still be struggling, but at least it would be protected from immiseration and despair.
Paul Krugman calls our attention to the same issue, pointing out that this early death pattern skips Hispanics, Blacks, and blue states in the west and northeast. It's primarily a red-state phenomenon.

Those raised to believe in the American Dream -- of a happy family in a happy home, going to church every Sunday, with Monday through Friday occupied by a solid and secure career -- had the most to lose when it didn't materialize.

Whites used to have a leg up. When it collapsed underneath them, they've been lashing out ever since, often at the ballot box. Now, they're also lashing out at their own kind in primaries, if there's a hint of potential compromise. It's political purity or banishment.

Thus, it's possible to conclude that living in a Fox News bubble is not just hazardous to your information flow and political party but to your health, as well.

There are a several names for this information bubble. One is epistemic closure, where people choose to exist in a "closed system of deduction, unaffected by empirical evidence." Another is confirmation bias, which is "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses." Yet another is cognitive dissonance, "the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time." We escape or avoid this stress by abandoning information that doesn't conform to our preferred set of beliefs. In a sense, we can't believe information that is disruptive to our closely held beliefs. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

An example in our current political culture is Ben Carson. For his fans, it's preferable to believe that he's a good and honest man who's fallen victim to attacks from the liberal media than to believe that they've so horribly misjudged him.

A final example of this is a study that was conducted to measure whether conservatives strain harder to avoid cognitive dissonance. Chris Mooney writes about it in Mother Jones:
In a recent study in PLOS One, an online academic journal, the psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his colleagues at New York University set out to explicitly test whether conservatives are more likely than liberals to avoid the unsettling sensation of cognitive dissonance. For the experiment, they asked George W. Bush and Barack Obama supporters to write an essay supporting the president whom they had already said they opposed. It was a test, as the study's instructions instructions put it, of "the ability to craft logical arguments arguing positions you may not personally endorse."
Importantly, the study sometimes presented writing the essay as a choice—which is more likely to arouse dissonance—and other times presented it as an assignment. As a control, the participants were put through the same routine by being asked to write essays on a nonpolitical issue: How they felt about Macs vs. PCs.
Sure enough, the results yielded a significant partisan difference in the willingness to write the essay—but only when the essay was political (not about Macs vs. PCs) and only when writing it was presented a choice, not an assignment. In that context, the results were rather stunning: Not a single Bush supporter was willing to write a pro-Obama essay. That's 0 out of 28 Bush supporters overall. Obama supporters didn't like writing pro Bush essays much either, but they were a lot more willing in general: 20 out of 71 did so, or 28 percent overall. (The study sample, obtained through's Mechanical Turk, contained more liberals than conservatives.)
In fact, some conservatives sounded rather miffed after taking the study, leaving comments like: "Not for all the tea in China would I write that." In contrast, note the study authors, some liberals seemed to revel in the assignment. "This was fun!" as one put it.
There is a highly regarded trait among humans exemplified by the expression, "To thy own self be true." That's good as far as it goes, but if that includes closing yourself off from information or insight that conflicts with your own "truth," then truthiness is all you might be left with. While that might be comforting, there's hell to pay when it comes to public policy. It may win elections in the GOP's closed loops, but eventually demographics will have them ruing the day they closed their minds.

Many believe that day will come in November 2016.

Progress for the American experiment might not profit by this approach.

So here's my hypothesis: Fox News and conservative talk radio thinks they created a closed-loop news bubble that helps conservatism and Republicanism dominate our political world. But what they may have done was rope off 30 percent of Americans in a way that will eventually cost the GOP elections. If you can't see the forest for the trees, you may not know what's transpiring around you. Just ask Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

What the GOP needs right now is an Eisenhower. What it may get, thanks to political purity on the right, is a Frankenstein. And that can't be good.

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