Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Is the Conservative Info Bubble Good for Progressives?

I think the information bubble that caused Mitt Romney to be sure of victory when he was about to be blown out is dangerous. But what if it’s actually a good thing for progressives? That’s what Frank Rich seems to think:

Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012. We are all fond of quoting the Daniel Patrick Moynihan dictum that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But we should start considering the possibility that it now works to the Democrats’ advantage that Fox News does manufacture its own facts.

From a purely partisan standpoint, I get it. If Republicans are so cocooned in their own little information world that they don’t even take questions that challenge their worldview, let alone take the steps to make their campaigns appeal to more voters, they’ll keep losing to Democrats:

Anyone who had spent the entire year in the Fox News cocoon — repeatedly hearing happy-news polls from Rasmussen and the even more egregious Dick Morris, repeatedly being assured that Benghazi was the silver bullet certain to take out Obama — knew the election was in the bag. Even Romney was blindsided by defeat, as befit a candidate whose campaign did its best to shield him from any non-Fox press. “We’d much rather go on a Fox program where we know the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it’s not going to a frenzy of questioning,” was how a Romney senior adviser, Eric Fehrn­strom, explained this self-immolating all-Fox strategy.

Fox News: Math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.

The incorrect facts on Fox are meant to keep Republicans together as part of one tribe.

Sure. Right now, for example, it seems they are putting a lot of misplaced eggs into one basket: the idea of Obamacare collapsing under its own weight, which ain’t gonna happen. As a Democrat, that should make my job of electing more Democrats easier, as Republicans will be caught flat-footed.

But from the standpoint of a citizen concerned for the direction of his country, I can’t see it as a good thing. While the information bubble makes conservatives easier to beat in elections, bursting that bubble might make them have saner, more productive policy priorities for the country — in other words, make it less important to beat them. If their crazy misinformation zone made them less likely to embrace a catastrophic debt default, for example, then even though I’m progressive and would prefer progressive policies, I could at least say to myself, “Well, even if conservatives win, it’s not like they’re going to burn down the whole world’s economy.”

The conservative news bubble isn’t strategic on the part of conservatives — it’s psychological. I’ve written about that psychology in terms of openness vs. conscientiousness, the traits that psychologists usually ascribe to progressives and conservatives, respectively: “When Conscientiousness dominates, a conservative will seek the order and stability of opinions that confirm his existing viewpoint — and the Openness that would ordinarily help him seek out novel experiences and ideas to break the bubble instead withers and atrophies.” Rich’s most valuable insight is on that score:

The Fox News membership is more than happy to be cocooned in an echo chamber where its own hopes and fears will be reinforced by other old white “people like us.” This Stockholm syndrome applies even to its more upscale members. On Election Day 2012, to take a representative example, Kelly interviewed Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal pundit, about the likely results that night. Noonan, citing “all the data that I get,” concluded that “something is going on there” and that “the dynamism” is on “the Romney side.” The “data” that persuaded her of victory was Fox News data: The only pollster she cited was a network favorite, Scott Rasmussen. Nate Silver could have told her that Rasmussen’s polls were untrustworthy, having shown a four-point pro-GOP bias in 2010 (as would also prove roughly the case in 2012), but why would she or any other Fox talking head or viewer listen to the likes of that rank outsider? Clearly few if any of them did.

Judge Smails and Al Czervik may both be old white people, but Smails’ view of Czervik as a rank outsider clearly impedes his ability to trust.

Tribalism. One important result of having a lower propensity to openness is relying more heavily on your in-group — the people who are on your side, who are most like you. In the case of old, white conservatives, that means fellow old, white conservatives. In the case of people who look at polls, it means pollsters who share their ideological convictions. And in general, studies have shown that Republicans’ brains are literally more likely to see a Republican politician as trustworthy.

While I think Rich has correctly observed the tribalist nature of the phenomenon, ultimately that doesn’t make me think the conservative information bubble is any better for me. A Republican info bubble that allows Democrats to win 65% of elections would be great — phenomenal, really — from the perspective of a pure partisan whose goal is to win more than half the time. But leaving the country in the hands of people with no idea what’s going on even as little as 35% of the time could be catastrophic. What is best for the country is for both sides of the political divide to have at least some accurate awareness of the inputs from, and needs of, the whole country.

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