How We Got Here….

A recent article from a publication called Fusion (with which I am unfamiliar) has been making the rounds on social media; I think the reason for its popularity is that it offers a perspective that strikes many of us–especially former Republicans– as persuasive.

If you want to understand intra-GOP warfare, the decision-making process of our president, the implosion of the Republican healthcare plan, and the rest of the politics of the Trump era, you don’t need to know about Russian espionage tactics, the state of the white working class, or even the beliefs of the “alt-right.” You pretty much just need to be in semi-regular contact with a white, reasonably comfortable, male retiree. We are now ruled by men who think and act very much like that ordinary man you might know, and if you want to know why they believe so many strange and terrible things, you can basically blame the fact that a large and lucrative industry is dedicated to lying to them.

The basic premise of the article is that, over the past decades, we have seen the emergence of a parallel media dedicated to lying to a particular demographic. Little by little, that “project” has created an alternate reality, and Americans find ourselves at the mercy of those who reside in that reality.

 The inmates are running the asylum, if there is a kind of asylum that takes in many mostly sane people and then gradually, over many years, drives one subset of its inmates insane, and also this asylum has the largest military in the world.

These quotations from the article confirm what most of us know; where the author makes a point that hadn’t occurred to me, at least, was the intra-party nature of this media strategy. The talking points delivered via talk radio, Fox News and rightwing blogs were, in this telling, different from the “more grounded and reality-based” media consumed by conservative “elites.” The “rubes”

 were fed apocalyptic paranoia about threats to their liberty, racial hysteria about the generalized menace posed by various groups of brown people, and hysterical lies about the criminal misdeeds of various Democratic politicians. The people in charge, meanwhile, read The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, and they tended to have a better grasp of political reality, as when those sources deceived their readers, it was mostly unintentionally, with comforting fantasies about the efficacy of conservative policies.

The consumers of the conspiracy theories–those the author calls the “rubes”–became the ground troops that helped the GOP win elections. But the article’s second–and more important–insight is that sponsorship of this worldview is no longer simply political. 

But if this was a reasonably useful arrangement for Republicans, who won a couple close elections with the help of their army of riled-up kooks, it was a fantastic deal for the real engine of the right-wing propaganda machine: companies selling newly patented drugs designed to treat the various conditions of old age, authors of dubious investing newsletters, sellers of survival seeds, hawkers of poorly written conservative books, and a whole array of similar con artists and ethically compromised corporations and financial institutions. The original strategy behind demonizing the “mainstream media” may have purely political, to steer voters away from outlets that tended to present information damaging to the conservative cause, but the creation of the conservative media was also a revenue opportunity for shameless grifters…

Conservative media became a goldmine for those willing to con trusting retirees, who have, as the article puts it, “a bit of disposable income, and a natural inclination to hate modernity and change—an inclination that could be heightened, radicalized, and exploited.” It was especially easy to prey on those inclinations during the term of a black President.

From there, it’s been all downhill.

Republicans realized they’d radicalized their base to a point where nothing they did in power could satisfy their most fervent constituents. Then—in a much more consequential development—a large portion of the Republican Congressional caucus became people who themselves consume garbage conservative media, and nothing else.

There is much more, especially about Trump and “Trumpians,” and the entire article is well worth reading and pondering.

The only thing missing from the spot-on analysis is the reason for the election of that “large portion” of GOP representatives who are delusional: gerrymandering.( If you don’t believe me, click through to read how it works….)


What the Hell is Epistemic Closure?

Epistemic closure is a fancy term for the practice of defining–or redefining– reality in ways that support your pre-existing ideological preferences. Most of us think of it as “creating and living in a bubble.”

A recent report from Political Animal illustrates the concept perfectly. Consider this result from a recent PPP poll:

There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what has happened during Obama’s time in office. 43% of voters think the unemployment rate has increased while Obama has been President, to only 49% who correctly recognize that it has decreased. And 32% of voters think the stock market has gone down during the Obama administration, to only 52% who correctly recognize that it has gone up.

In both cases Democrats and independents are correct in their understanding of how things have changed since Obama became President, but Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.

Another poll–also referenced in the linked post–is even more illuminating: approximately 60% of Republican respondents said that the economy had declined since 2008; but that number jumped to 80% when the question was phrased differently– not in terms of how the economy had performed since 2008, but “since Obama was first elected.”

In 2010, the New York Times book review section had an extended essay devoted to the phenomenon, and in the Age of Trump, it is reasonable to assert that matters have only gotten worse.

The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy, where it has a technical meaning in the realm of logic.)

As a result, he complained, many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy, like the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States or that the health care bill proposed establishing “death panels.”

In his recent speech to Rutgers’ graduates, President Obama included an eloquent rejoinder to those who wish to construct their own realities:

… when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.

You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane.

And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.” The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey, he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

“Epistemic closure” is a more elegant phrase than the ones that come more readily to mind: “The big lie.” “Propaganda.” “Bullshit.”

Or–perhaps most accurate of all–“bat-shit crazy.”