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Dec 05 2012

What happens when reality catches up with rhetoric?

In a survey taken after the election, the polling firm PPP found that 49% of Republicans thought that the group ACORN had stolen the election for Obama. This is fascinating considering that ACORN no longer exists, having been disbanded a few years ago. Given that about 32% of the population identifies as Republican, this means that about 16% of the voting public believes stuff that has absolutely no basis in reality.

Where does this craziness come from? One possibility is that it is the consequence of the extraordinary campaign waged in the last four years to delegitimize the Obama presidency. Especially as the presidential election campaign heated up, one was treated to extraordinarily apocalyptic views by right-wingers of all the awful things that were sure to happen if Obama were re-elected. In an Obama second term he would take away people’s guns, the economy would be destroyed because he would usher in a Marxist/socialist state, people would die because of rationing of health care, death panels would spring into being, Christians would be discriminated against and Sharia law would become ubiquitous in the legal system, the UN would take over the country, contraceptives would be distributed freely by the government, the institution of marriage would be destroyed as gays took over, Black Panthers would be patrolling the streets, abortions would be available at your neighborhood drugstore, and so on.

None of these fears deal with real and major threats, such as his assumption of sweeping powers that trump so many of the constitutional protections that were supposed to protect us, including the right to not be deprived of life and liberty without due process and his invasions of privacy via the sweeping snooping powers that exist within the National Security Agency. Instead they are all fantasy threats. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow mocks the bubble that the GOP created for itself and its supporters, while Rachel Maddow lists all the crazy things that were said that were not only not true, they were simply unbelievable.

If you lived in that bubble and believed all those things, then I can understand how it would be inconceivable to you that your fellow citizens would vote in such a monster and hence he could only win by cheating.

But who created that bubble? Much of blame can be laid at the feet of conservative political operatives and their allies in Fox News in order to get Republican supporters fired up and to contribute money to the opponents of Obama and the Democratic party. To me at least, this election’s rhetoric seemed to be unusually unhinged and more over the top than in past elections. Rick Pearlstein has been reading the literature of the right-wing propaganda machine and finds that they plant the seeds of such fears, repeatedly drumming the message that the public is being lied to by the mainstream media and that there are truths out there that are being hidden from the general public. Romney campaign’s remarkable disregard for the truth contributed to this mentality.

Of course, none of the dire outcomes that were predicted are going to materialize. So what will these people do when 2016 rolls around and things are pretty much the same as they are now? Will the people who took all this stuff seriously realize that they’ve been had? Or will it all be forgotten as the next frenzy of campaigning begins and the next crop of candidates is transformed into dangerous monsters?

I really don’t understand the thinking of a lot of these people, especially the sense of almost palpable fear that they seem to routinely live with. It must be terrible to live in such a state of dire foreboding. Kevin Drum shares my puzzlement.

Rick is suggesting that rank-and-file conservatives simply have a cast of mind that makes them vulnerable to scary, conspiracy-minded sales pitches, and it doesn’t matter much whether the sales pitch is for an investment opportunity to save you from the destruction of the dollar or a political opportunity to save America from the depradations of the UN. And this certainly fits what we know about brain science and ideology: people with a more fearful cast of mind tend to be political conservatives, while people with a more open cast of mind tend to be political liberals.

This explains the fear-based nature of most conservative appeals, but it still doesn’t really explain why so many of those appeals are completely batty. Isn’t it possible to scare people with (relatively speaking) plausible scenarios? The UN doesn’t want to herd us all into cities, but liberals do want to make gasoline more expensive. (It’s true! We do!) Likewise, nobody’s going to confiscate your guns, but there are plenty of liberals who do want to pass an assault weapons ban.

So why the endlessly apocalyptic tone? Is the real stuff simply not scary enough to be effective? Or have conservatives gotten caught up in an arms race that long ago got out of control? What’s the deal here?

There seems to be a core group of Americans, around 20% or so of the population, who seem to be wandering around with a deep sense of foreboding that we are all in extreme danger of the country being transformed overnight into some sort of authoritarian gulag.

And that is the really scary thing. Because people with irrational fears are prone to doing stupid and even dangerous things.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    Given that about 32% of the population identifies as Republican, this means that about 16% of the voting public believes stuff that has absolutely no basis in reality.

    Slightly higher, actually, since a small but non-trivial number of Democrats also believe that ACORN stole the election for Obama.

  2. 2
    DaveL

    In an Obama second term he would take away people’s guns, the economy would be destroyed because he would usher in a Marxist/socialist state, people would die because of rationing of health care, death panels would spring into being, Christians would be discriminated against and Sharia law would become ubiquitous in the legal system, the UN would take over the country, contraceptives would be distributed freely by the government,

    Murder, Arson, Jaywalking?

  3. 3
    richardelguru

    And it can’t help if your church is always going on about Hellfire and the apocalypse.

  4. 4
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    I heard Obama wants to punch Little Baby Jesus in the face.

    Why does he hate Little Baby Jesus?

  5. 5
    ph041985

    “So what will these people do when 2016 rolls around and things are pretty much the same as they are now? Will the people who took all this stuff seriously realize that they’ve been had? Or will it all be forgotten as the next frenzy of campaigning begins and the next crop of candidates is transformed into dangerous monsters?”

    My money’s on the latter.

  6. 6
    ph041985

    Just look at the rhetoric that came up this election about “Are you better off now than we were four years ago?” The way people remembered their lives four years ago, we were all swimming in Scrooge McDuck vaults.

  7. 7
    schmeer

    Many people of a conservative mindset also seek to simplify complicated issues into easy to handle or black and white choices. This is why I think this extreme rhetoric resonates with them so well. If they have to consider where they stand on an increase in taxes to balance some improved social services they must weigh the pros and cons before making a judgement. Deciding that Obama must be a Marxist because of a slight increase in one type of tax makes the issue easier to digest for the lazy thinker.
    Overcoming this kind of oversimplification led me to become much more liberal in my political opinions.

  8. 8
    freebird

    In the same poll, people were polled about their opinion on the Simpson Bowles plan, with most people not having an opinion. But they were also polled on the Panetta-Burns plan, which is entirely fictional. Nevertheless, 25% of those polled had some kind of opinion. 8% were in favor (and were mostly Democrats) while 17% were opposed to it (and were mostly Republicans).

    http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2009/PPP_Release_National_1119.pdf

  9. 9
    freebird

    Whoops, I was reading a different poll about election stealing with ACORN:

    http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2011/PPP_Release_National_1204.pdf

    My bad.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    Mano, have you read “The Authoritarians” (Altemeyer) ?? It’s free for download and I think it’s pretty interesting; I wish it wasn’t written at an undergrad level, but the content’s what matters.

    I would love to know where this stuff falls on the nature/nurture controversy (has anyone done twin studies about where twins fall on the authoritarianism scale?) but it really seems as if some people are simply more inclined to accept what they’re told, as long as they’re told in a voice of authority (confidently, without equivocation, assertively, etc) than others.

    Another study I’d love to see (but it’d be soooo hard to control!) would be to see if a subject’s tendency to accept assertions as true could be adjusted solely via the body language of the authority. I’ve always wondered how much of an impact visual media has had in authoritarianism – being able to have Leni Reifenstahl portray short pudgy little Hitler as more powerful and authoritarian than he probably was, seems to have had a major impact. I rarely watch Faux News but I often see things in the talking heads that strike me as body language (gestures, like O’Reilly pointing a finger, etc) of authority.

    What I’m getting at is that I believe* that there are a pool of people out there who are pre-programmed to believe just about anything they’re told – whether it’s contradictory or not – as long as they’re told using certain methods. The right wing media machine is able to create these bubbles using those methods, which have evolved – they are not purely intelligently designed, it’s just based on what works.

    One of the fascinating things Altemeyer finds in his research is that people who score high on the authoritarian follower scale are much more likely to be comfortable believing obviously contradictory things. I.e: “bombing civilians is ALWAYS bad.” “collateral damage is OK.” therefore “when we do it, it’s OK.”

    I’m treading perilously close to “just so stories” but it seems like having an evolved-in predisposition to learn acceptingly from authorities would have survival value. If that had a limited period, what if there was substantial variation in that period of susceptibility and authoritarians are just taking advantage of a natural survival trait to listen when you’re told something by someone who seems to know what they’re talking about? (“don’t eat that plant it will make you sick”)

    (*I say “believe” because I am not aware of any theory or evidence supporting these ideas, so I consider them just amusing fictions I think about. I stopped paying attention to psychology in 1985 after I got my BA in it.)

  11. 11
    Marcus Ranum

    Addendum: I’d also love to see twin studies in how easily people are hypnotized.
    I suspect hypnosis is too difficult/vague to measure, though. :\

  12. 12
    mnb0

    Ssst – some right wing nuts might quote you.

  13. 13
    raven

    I really don’t understand the thinking of a lot of these people, especially the sense of almost palpable fear that they seem to routinely live with.

    True.

    The christofascists are frightened and not very bright people.

    1. After Obama was elected, gun and ammunition sales went way up. Probably it will happen again.

    And how useful have all those guns been? Most of the time, they appear to be teddy bears for frightened adults.

    2. The Rapture. The christofascists have such empty, miserable lives that their best idea is to hope and pray that a Sky Monster shows up 2,000 years late, kills 7 billion people, and destroys the earth.

    Well whatever. Most of us have better things to do with our time and lives.

  14. 14
    baal

    “And that is the really scary thing. Because people with irrational fears are prone to doing stupid and even dangerous things.”

    Including the setting up of authoritarian gulags.

  15. 15
    Mano Singham

    No, I haven’t read it. I’ll try and check it out.

  16. 16
    raven

    infowars 2009:

    It is well known that the Rockefeller Foundation is the prime sponsor of public relations for the United Nations’ drastic depopulation program. deleted for length:

    The eugenicists are back with their latest program to kill an untold number of people under the cover of the “swine flu pandemic.” If you line up for a vaccination contaminated with mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde and other toxins — and a possible agent for future cancers designed to decimate world population — you need to have your head examined.

    However, as Ron Paul indicates, you may not have a choice — the government may force you to choose between a toxic vaccine and a FEMA camp.

    This is one of my favorite examples of right wingnut thinking from 2009.

    1. The swine flu vaccine is part of a UN world depopulation program.

    2. It will kill hundreds of millions of people.

    3. If you refuse the vaccine, you will be sent to an (imaginary) FEMA concentration camp.

    Of course none of this happened. The swine flu vaccine was quite useful in saving lives and attenuating the epidemic.

    Did the people writing, reposting, and reading this even notice it was just delusions strung together? No.

  17. 17
    Greg P.

    Rhetoric is an example of a selfish meme. It must evolve in order to perpetuate itself.

  18. 18
    otrame

    There seems to be a core group of Americans, around 20% or so of the population, who seem to be wandering around with a deep sense of foreboding that we are all in extreme danger of the country being transformed overnight into some sort of authoritarian gulag.

    Let’s be fair. There is also a core group who worry that the authoritarian gulag will be theocratic.

    But I agree that there is a a bunch of people “wandering around with a deep sense of foreboding”. I think they are largely a group suffering from what Alvin Toffler called Futureshock. The rapidity with which our technology, and thus our culture, is changing is very hard on some individuals within that culture.

    Sometimes you can get a sort of reverse futureshock. I loved the look on my granddaughter’s face when she told me about hearing about the first big video game “back in the day” and how lame it was, and I told her that I was an adult–a young adult, I grant you–when Pong was invented.

    Even though I was immunized against futureshock by parents who reveled in the changes in technology, and by a life-long love of science fiction, I still occasionally find myself at something of a loss in today’s world. What my gadget-loving dad and all those technologically advanced societies in SF did for me is make me unafraid of the changes even when I don’t really get them. Many people, especially poorly educated people, never got those immunizations. The world is a very different place from what they grew up expecting. They are scared and there are those who use that fear. That fear is money in the bank for Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And the Republican Party.

  19. 19
    Tracey

    Raven:”The christofascists are frightened and not very bright people.”

    Many of them also just love inflicting pain on others. From cruel “practical jokes” to scapegoating to shunning; these are the folks who just love it when someone else is hurting.

  20. 20
    bad Jim

    Here’s the link (pdf). It’s a quick read, absolutely essential, and jaw-dropping, flabbergasting.

  21. 21
    Paul Jarc

    Not just authoritarian followers, but humans in general are wired to believe what we’re told by default. I don’t know whether there’s any correlation between authoritarian-following and greater than average credulity, but one circumstance that is known to increase credulity is distraction. So it seems the constant crawls on news channels are a hindrance for critical thinking.

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