A recent essay from The New Republic addressed a question that constantly bedevils me: why do people firmly believe things that are demonstrably false?
I’m not talking about questions that are simply unprovable, like “is there a God?” I’m talking about aspects of our common experience about which there is ample data from credible sources. The linked article, for example, looks into the widespread belief that America’s economy is struggling, when all of the data confirms the opposite.
In the article, Timothy Noah dubs the journalism tracking such unsupportable beliefs as the “Folklore Beat,” and provides examples:
Covid vaccines are unnecessary. Foreign aid constitutes two-thirds of the federal budget. Donald Trump won the election. Schoolteachers are trying to turn your children gay or trans. Little green men visited Area 51, and the military doesn’t want you to know.
Noah is impatient with the media’s tendency to report respectfully on the people espousing those beliefs.
I’ll grant that when misconceptions acquire a large following (though seldom a majority one), that’s news. But is it really necessary to hand a megaphone to every street-corner blowhard in America? News organizations don’t do this because they believe what the blowhards say. They do it because they’re sensitive—too sensitive, if you ask me—to any accusation that they’re out of touch with John Q. Public. And while it’s certainly necessary to document ways in which macroeconomic data fails to capture the complexities of everyday life, particularly with respect to economic inequality, how many times do I have to hear some uninformed fool expound on how President Joe Biden is mishandling the economy? He can’t prove it; he’s not trying to prove it; he just feels that way, and we mustn’t disrespect feelings.
When it comes to the economy, polling continues to show much of the public unhappy with Biden’s performance–although, as Noah notes, “the Wall Street titans on whom Biden wishes to raise taxes maintain a higher opinion of Biden’s economic stewardship than the public at large.”
Perhaps that’s because the rich watch economic matters more closely.
Speaking of the rich, Morgan Stanley recently quadrupled its prior estimate of GDP growth for the first six months of this year, and doubled its GDP growth prediction for October–December 2023, signaling that its economists no longer anticipate a recession. But only a paltry 20 percent of respondents to a CNBC survey released the same week agreed that the economy was excellent or good. Other polls have returned similar results.
The New Republic essay enumerated the truly excellent economic facts of life–employment and paychecks up, inflation down, manufacturing returning to the U.S., etc.–and then considered reasons for the public’s evident dismissal of excellent economic news.
As with so many aspects of American life today, the answer turns out to be partisanship.
In 2016, Gallup polled voters on the economy one week before the election and one week after. During the week preceding the election, with President Obama in the White House and Hillary Clinton widely expected to win, only 16 percent of Republicans thought the economy was improving, compared to 61 percent of Democrats. One week after the election, fully 49 percent of Republicans suddenly thought the economy was improving, compared to only 46 percent of Democrats. Note how much greater this post-election swing was for Republicans: 33 percentage points, compared to 15 for Democrats….
How does voter opinion differ according to party identification on Biden’s handling of jobs and unemployment? So much so as to render the 47–48 percent figure meaningless. Among Democrats, 84 percent approve, in rough approximation to objective reality. Among Republicans, only 15 percent do.
Inflation? Only 5 percent of Republicans approve of how Biden handled that, as against 71 percent of Democrats. If the judgments of both remain less favorable than on jobs and unemployment, that’s because inflation, though greatly diminished, remains above the Fed’s target level of 2 percent (though if you ask me, 3 percent inflation is pretty low).
The inescapable conclusion is that when you ask somebody whether the economy is doing well, you won’t get an answer about the economy. You may not even get an answer about that individual’s personal experience (which may or may not reflect broader economic trends as compared to one, two, or 10 years ago). Most of the time, you’d be better off just asking, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” Because these days, that determines how people—especially Republicans—feel about pretty much everything. If the man on the street sounds like a blowhard, hyper-partisanship explains why. The rest is just noise.
Partisan polarization has overwhelmed reason. Tribalism now dictates interpretations of reality. And of course, thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s easy to find “evidence” to support your preferred version of even the most unlikely “facts.”
Welcome to Never-Never Land.