Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Epistemic closure is a liability

Business Insider has a back and forth between Oliver Darcy and Pamela Engel, on the one hand, and Josh Barro, on the other, about the effects of the right-wing media on the current GOP. Darcy/Engel argue that the Republican Party won't be able to reform until it first changes the rightwing media. Barro views the rightwing media as a symptom of the parties' disfunction and lack of commitment to truth.

While I agree that there are multiple causes of Republican disfunction, I really think Darcy/Engel are more right than Barro on this one. The problem with the right-wing media is that by not reporting or downplaying information that is contrary to the ideology, consumers of that media eventually start living in their own political universe. Because there are not enough people consuming right-wing media exclusively to win a national election, the party is in an impossible situation. A Republican candidate has to appeal simultaneously to people in the alternate wingnutosphere as well as at least a portion of the public who don't share any of the background assumptions of their base. As the right-wing media gets more and more extreme, incorporating elements of what used to be fringe alt-right theories, there is less and less in common with people who are outside that bubble. It just doesn't work.

The right-wing media is really good at getting people angry, and that can be a good motivator to turn out the vote among consumers of that media. In low-turnout elections (such as mid-term elections), the extra motivation to turn out can be a big benefit to Republican candidates. But it dooms them in Presidential years, when the turnout is much greater and whatever extra motivation the wingnuts might have is overwhelmed by the larger electorate.

On top of that, there is also evidence that the candidates themselves are believe in the alternate reality of the right-wing media and, because that reality is not accurate, sometimes make bad strategic decisions in their campaign. There are tons of examples from this campaign, Trump's ridiculousness knows no bounds. But the problem goes back since at least the 2012 campaign. Witness, for example, Mitt Romney being caught flat-footed at the debate when Candy Crawley corrected him and pointed out that Obama had described the Benghazi attack as an "act of terror"--Romney apparently had only been getting his news from places like Fox that were wrongly insisting that the President never said those words while other sources quickly found a tape of Obama and moved on. Or when the Romney campaign jumped all over the false story (pushed by Breitbart) that the Obama administration was suing to prevent members of the military from voting in Ohio. Or when Romney did that mystifying swing through Pennsylvania on election day because he was taken in by "unskewed polls" that contradicted regular polls that showed he had little chance in the state.

The right-wing media is not just a symptom of the Republicans' difficulties, they really are part of the problem. But because they do give some benefit in the off years--which means just after a big presidential loss, when they otherwise would have the largest incentive to get things under control, they will immediately start looking ahead to the next election, when their media does give a benefit--I have a hard time imagining that the powers that be in the party will deal with the problem (even if we assume that they are able to do something about the right-wing media, and that's not clear either).

(via Memeorandum)