Friday, August 4, 2017

When One Party Loses Its Mind

My forthcoming newspaper column:
Think we’re overtaxed? Overregulated? We can talk. If it’s your opinion public education has problems and you have ideas, it’s conversable. If you believe our country is heading in the wrong direction, let’s debate. Which direction, especially. We could have a conversation about military vs. social spending, and where the balance is; to what extent each protects us. I’ve even had almost room-temperature excursus about why, in successful societies, people care for one another. 
If you believe the planet isn’t warming, or humans have nothing to do with it, or it’s not serious, there’s no point in wasting either of our time. If you deny evolution or feel sure the earth is six thousand years old, or flat, I’ll defend your right to such beliefs, but they announce the impossibility of fruitful back-and-forth. Likewise if you think homosexuality is a choice. I suppose we could discuss whether tax cuts pay for themselves, but we wouldn’t get far.  
The need to reject indisputable facts is something that puzzles me about humans. In our evolutionary history, gut feelings no doubt played an important role in survival. React first, analyze later: it got us a long way. So, several hundred thousand years ago, did prehensile tails, the vestiges of which we all retain, occasionally causing coccygodinia. 
According to polls, forty percent of Republicans are certain Russian election interference is fake news created by liberals to distract Trump from his job. This they believe despite knowing every relevant intelligence agency has concluded otherwise and, shown the evidence, so has every member of involved congressional committees, Democrat and Republican. Of Republican voters who acknowledge it occurred, most seem undisturbed. (In a recent challenge, American hackers broke into voting machines in minutes.)  
In political fora, many Republicans insist our economy didn’t tank until Obama took over, and continued to decline throughout his presidency. Presenting them with indisputable facts makes no difference. The best hope is that such people are trolling. Otherwise it’s a serious mental defect of information processing, the same kind that rejects unwelcome news as fake. In theory, voting presumes the ability to evaluate data; this broad-based dismissal of evidence by a major political party is ominous. 
I don’t think forty percent of Republicans are innately stupid or unable to learn new things. In fairness, they’ve been victimized by intentional disinformation for decades, so it’s not entirely their fault. Whatever the explanation, because it requires both sides accept basic facts, rational discourse has become all but impossible. If political beliefs are a mutable hodge-podge, especially in a messy democracy like ours, facts are not. For propaganda to take root, there must be fertile soil. In that, Democrats are a raised-bed backyard garden. Today’s Republicans are a corporate farm. Our democracy was designed by men who didn’t imagine such a divide was possible. 
Aided by clever gerrymandering, Republicans dominate state and federal legislatures. In many red states, not unlike the US Senate (and the current president, thanks to the quirky Electoral College), Republicans received fewer votes than Democrats. And those elected tend to be the most rigid denialists. If it were true, as third-party nihilists argue, that there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, it wouldn’t matter. 
But when one’s adherents are consistently disdainful of facts, and when its leaders count on that instead of winning on ideas, a pathologically lying president who considers the White House “a dump” and lies about Boy Scout phone calls is what happens. The White House revolving door happens. An EPA following the law only by court order, its scientists resigning, happens. Incoherent foreign and domestic policy by tweet, Pizzagate, Seth Rich fake Fox “news” allegedly pushed by the president all happen; a president who’s made it impossible to believe anything he says. Happens. The Republican Prevaricare farce happens (Lindsey Graham called it a disaster and a fraud. And voted for it.)  
Ironically, the same information-processing deficiency that allowed Trump’s voters to disregard his lifelong moral and ethical failings, his businesses based on inherited (and laundered?) money and swindling, caused them not to reckon how incapable of governing he’d be. His ineptitude is the only thing saving us, so far, from dictatorship. Or worse. The arch-conservative NRO gets it. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, too. Who’s got next? 
[Image source]


  1. "The need to reject indisputable facts is something that puzzles me about humans."

    There is an interesting book written several years ago by Robert Cialdini about the psychology of persuasion titled "Influence". Once you read about his 6 principles you'll see them in play all around you.

    Two of the principles are "committment and consistency" and "social proof". Both seem in play here. Get someone to defend Trump, easier during the early days of the election when it wasn't as obvious how crazy he was, and now the person either has to lose face and admit they were hoodwinked or keep going no matter how deep it gets. We seem to be hardwired to do the latter. As for social proof, if those in your social circle are listening to the rants on Fox and routinely bring them up then those preferring rationality and fact have long ago left that circle and so it seems like "everyone" is on board.


  2. Makes sense. I was thinking about the evolutionary advantage; thus the "gut reaction" vs cogitating. At one time, I'd guess, the former was more important in terms of survival of immediate danger.

  3. In January, Michael Schermer's column in Scientific American was "How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail". His conclusion offered a suggested approach while acknowledging that the odds are slim —

    "From my experience, 1. keep emotions out of the exchange, 2. discuss, don't attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum), 3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately, 4. show respect, 5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and 6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews."

    Perhaps patient face-to-face encounters might succeed, but where can you find that? Online engagements are too brief and rarely rise to discussion.

  4. I've met several of my most vociferous critics for coffee. The conversations were generally peaceful and worthwhile, although only one has continued. I've tried to respond gracefully to those who take the time to email me directly (as opposed to the online morass at The Herald); it never, ever gets anywhere. There simply is no amount of factual discourse that causes even a wrinkle in the wall.

  5. It brings to mind the various "dumb things Americans believe" lists online. I am not surprised at the outcomes considering that that sample is people sufficiently outraged to write you. I'd expect a bunch of much harder nuts compared to the universe of Trump voters...

    As I read your reply the first time, the image I had was of two gladiators entering the Coliseum. They slowly walk towards each other and circle one another cautiously when one of them says, "Hey, let's talk about this." You certainly deserve much credit for trying so hard.


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