Conservatives Trapped in Their Own Bubble

Conservatives Trapped in Their Own Bubble August 17, 2016

SoapBubble

After the 2012 election, I wrote about how the Republicans’ epistemic bubble blinded them to their coming loss. Because they deliberately isolated themselves from all contrary opinion, they had no idea that there were people who didn’t see the Obama presidency the same way they did, and thus failed to frame their argument in a way that would have been persuasive to those people. At the time, I mused on what they might do next:

The very defect that’s laid them low also makes it almost impossible for them to engage in the painfully honest self-critique they need in order to do better next time. For one thing, for them to broaden their appeal to Democratic constituencies like women and Hispanics, they’d need to understand why those groups vote Democratic in the first place – something that, to date, they’ve shown absolutely no willingness to do…

But as the reality of this election sinks in, it may yet prove to be the irresistible force that crashes through the GOP’s bubble of epistemic closure and lets the daylight in. It could give a prophetic cast to those few voices of reason left in the party who can recognize how badly they’ve gone astray. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this loss will only empower those who retreat deeper into the bubble and insist on ever-greater ideological purity and rigidity.

Four years later, we have a pretty good idea how that went. Rather than broadening their appeal, the Republicans chose to narrow it, picking the most offensive candidate possible to women, blacks, Hispanics, young people, and other demographics they badly needed to win over. It’s as if the party’s voters threw a collective tantrum, picking a bad candidate out of pure spite just because they were being told that they had to do the opposite.

But not all Republicans are blind to the corner they’ve painted themselves into. The journalist Oliver Darcy interviewed a conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, who put his finger squarely on the problem:

We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.’ There’s nobody – you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.’ And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it. And I swim upstream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.

When this is all over, we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this. We’ve created this monster. Look, I’m a conservative talk show host. All conservative talk show hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted with the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot has been justifiable. There is real bias. But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there. And I am feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind at that. And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute?’

In their zeal to push policies that weren’t supported by evidence, conservatives taught their base to distrust and reject all fact-checking. And they succeeded, only to find that it left them powerless when a demagogue came along who was willing to lie even more flagrantly and carelessly to usurp the reins of power. They’re trapped in the bubble they created for themselves.

Erick Erickson, the conservative pundit and activist, echoed Sykes’ words:

One of the things Charlie said was “And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute” to the conditions that led to Trump. I have written before that I think I and virtually every other person engaged in politics at the national level contributed in various ways. In fact, at this weekend’s RedState Gathering I said I think a new rule of thumb could be to never trust a politician, political consultant, or pundit who says they had nothing to do with the rise of Trump.

For some, like me, perhaps we pushed too hard on issues and held too many people to many promises we took more literally than we should. Perhaps we encouraged activists to have too little grace for others. For others, it was making promises they had no intention of keeping. For others it was peddling stories they knew to not be true, but were just too good not to talk about.

…If there is one great bit of blame for conservatives, it’s that we allowed bad operators to join us because we assumed we were in common cause with them when we were not. And now, like the cuckoo bird, these bad operators would shove us out of conservatism when instead they themselves much be held to account for profiteering, corruption, and lying to senior citizens and activists alike.

Although Erickson engages in the inevitable both-sides-do-itism (“Republicans and Democrats both deserve blame”), he too recognizes his role in this. He was part of the chorus insisting that there’s no such thing as objective reality, that all truth is partisan, and that you should believe anyone who’s part of the tribe and disbelieve anyone who isn’t. He was one of the pundits who spent years cultivating unrealistic expectations in their voters, leaving them eager for a candidate who promises he can do anything by sheer force of will.

I give Erickson and Sykes credit for honesty, but it took a lot to bring them to this point, and even now they’re in a distinct minority. Most of the party shows no awareness of the dilemma they’re in, much less a desire to understand the causes. Nearly all of their elected leaders are engaged in awkward contortions, treating their nominee as a storm that will blow over if they just ride it out, and then things will go back to the way they were. And as for their voters, most are utterly certain they made a great choice.

The reality is that this head-in-the-sand behavior is what caused their problem in the first place. They’ve done huge damage to their brand already, and the longer they put off reckoning with that, the worse it’s going to get. It’s very possible that this election could consign the GOP to permanent minority status, an archaic faction of white resentment and Christian bigotry swamped by a more diverse and secular America.

Image credit: Brocken Inaglory, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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