Tuesday, August 16, 2011

post-fact politics and the conservative narrative.

while researching and reading for my post on post-fact politics, i searched foxnews.com for "what caused the debt?" and i got the most hilarious results. amongst the headlines "left, right unite in criticism of obama?" and "should geithner resign?" i clicked on the the most promising link, "power play video: placing blame for debt downgrade" and was struck by another funny headline, "bad timing for president's vacation?" and then of course there's the content of the video. watch it, and keep in mind that this is what a fox news viewer likely sees when they wonder, "who's to blame for the debt?"

listen to the anchor's first question. of all the questions to ask, the question was basically, "is obama going to tank the markets further?" and the answer, paraphrased: "if he reaches out to republicans, markets will do well." (right, because reaching out to republicans has worked so well in the past.) and then the next guy comes on: "blaming the tea party won't work. the president is a loser. he's unpredictable and has no plan." and then the next guy... anchor: "as the republicans try to deal with the debt, but they're being blamed, what do they do?" (poor republicans.) answer: "the president doesn't take responsibility for anything. he needs to take ownership of the issue. but at least were making progress on the debt, which wouldn't have happened without the republicans." i mean... what? do you see the bias? because if you don't, you're either one of those aforementioned inhabitants of a parallel universe completely unaware of the narrative-crushing preponderance of contradictory facts out there, or you're just lying to yourself. and while the loyal viewers may be lying to themselves, it's not that anyone on the show is lying necessarily... but why is the anchor just setting up the commentators to spew hostile opinions? why ask those questions?

now look at some of the comments on recent foxnews.com political or economic articles. it's just a pure hate-fest. i'm talking, rough estimate, 90%+ jabs at obama and liberals, most of them absurdly baseless and indicative of ignorance. but with that video in mind, with the perspective of someone who has been presented these as the salient facts on the issues, can all the commenters (and commentators) really be blamed for thinking, basically, "it's all obama's fault"? honestly, maybe not. can they be blamed for selecting biased sources? can they be blamed for refusing to think critically about the narrative they're being presented? can they be blamed for being so defensive that contradicting information only reinforces their delusional worldview? sure. but would i come to the same conclusion were i stuck in the same bubble, oblivious of the bigger picture? probably.

i took a little look at a little unscientific fox news poll on the day of the debt ceiling vote, and the poll blew my mind. (don't vote, just go ahead and hit view results so a bunch of sane people don't taint the poll.) the poll asks, "would you vote to approve the deficit reduction plan approved by president obama and congressional leadership?" now think about what that question means, carefully. this was before the final plan was agreed on, so there were no specifics on the plan, but we know at least a couple things: it was a deficit reduction plan, meaning we could presume it would reduce the deficit, and the leadership of both parties approved of it, meaning that the republicans have approved it. ignoring the fact that democrats also approved it, it's a republican leadership approved plan to cut the deficit. why would someone disapprove of that? yet 72%... 72% of this self-selected sample of fox news consumers said they would disapprove, and the majority of them in the most extreme terms. (not just no, but "hell no!") so what the hell is going on here?

is it just because obama and the democratic leadership also approve of it? ok, now think about what that question means. can politics actually function when a movement will chain themselves to the ship's wheel in opposition just because the president approves? i mean, i think that's just it. i think that because the question contained the implication that it was approved by obama, the automatic answer was to disapprove. and that's the funniest thing, obama's policies are often in lockstep with reagan-era conservativism but there is absolutely no way he will ever be recognized for it in today's post-fact world. everything he says and does is damned before he says and does it. it's not that this hypothetical plan is bad, we don't even know what it is, just that obama approved it! and that's the narrative... obama is a socialist, (and maybe, just maybe a foreign-born muslim who fraternizes with terrorists,) so just about anything that comes out of him is set to destroy america.

the tea party is not a top-down movement. despite the typical positive connotations of grass-roots movements, i highlight that this is a grass-roots movement because it's a symptom of something terrifying. the tea party freshmen in congress that chained themselves to the ship's wheel until they got what they wanted are not rogue representatives. they represent a virulent strain of american politics that is alive and well within their constituencies. welcome to post-fact politics, where people are inundated in such tailored versions of reality that they might as well exist in another world altogether.

i turned on glenn beck the other day and heard him peddling the whole class warfare narrative as usual, and he was trying to shoot down the idea of higher taxes on the rich (because it's class warfare) by saying the rich already have the biggest tax burden, "the richest 5% pay over 50% of taxes!" but here's the thing... if you look at the whole picture, not just what conservative radio tells you, you would realize that the richest 5% paying 50% of taxes is only meaningful when you account for how much of the wealth is concentrated in the top 5%. the bigger picture is that "in the united states at the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth and the top 1% owned 38%. on the other hand, the bottom 40% owned less than 1% of the nation's wealth." now do you see why the rich are paying most of the taxes? that quote is nothing more than evidence of extreme income inequality, but it's being peddled as a culled fact to support the conservative narrative... and people just eat it up.

here's another little gem i found on foxnews.com after the debt ceiling crisis was over: "debt ceiling lifted and uncle sam's IOU soars another $238 billion, reaching 100 percent of the nation's gross domestic product — the total market value of america's goods and services." now anyone familiar with basic economics can see the glaring error in that sentence. let's see if you can spot it. (hint: define GDP.) as you might imagine, i'm not much of a conservative media outlet connoisseur, but picking off all these distortions (or outright lies depending on who you ask) is happening on an increasingly regular basis. i'm talking about the 20 minutes a week i happen to be bored enough to listen to conservative media channels, i'm hearing these things more and more.

so how do you spot these post-fact extremists? it's a question i've spent quite a bit of time on. it brings to mind a popular quote from the supreme court, "i shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material i understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps i could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. but i know it when i see it." —justice potter stewart, concurring opinion in jacobellis v. ohio 378 u.s. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in the lovers.

that said, there's a couple litmus tests i've come up with over time. here's my favorite one: presented with the the same information, extremists will come to different judgements based on the source. for a conservative, first ask "obama believes in a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, and supports raising taxes. what do you think?" you might be able to guess at the result. now comes the test question... if you then ask "reagan believed in a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, and supported raising taxes. what do you think?" if their answer is consistent, you're probably talking to someone sane. on the other hand, if the answer is "well that must have made sense at the time" or some other such cop-out, you're probably talking to a someone there's no point in talking to. (for a liberal, try this in reverse, but be warned, liberals tend to have objectivity bias that makes this test way less fun.)

here's another test, though this one isn't so much an objectivity test as it is a test of whether or not someone is stuck in one of these divorced realities. just ask "where did the debt come from?" most conservatives are thoroughly divorced from reality on this one, and i ask that you try to maintain a light-hearted humorous appreciation for their responses. i try my best to do the same, because the absurd misinformation out there surrounding this one subject is essentially what inspired this entire post. that so many conservatives (and liberals, but to a lesser extent) blame the opposite end of the political spectrum for the vast debt and deficits, when the true origins are clear to any objective observer, is to me, the single biggest and best indicator that we live in a post-fact political climate.