Keeping the Faith

I’ve been thinking about the mid-term elections a lot recently.  With financial reform and health care reform passed, President Obama has kept two big promises.  Of course, neither bill is perfect.  But both are steps in the right direction.  So when his poll numbers go down anyway and the pundits think mid-term election disaster it is hard to keep the faith.  In this connection, I’m looking at a piece from last Sunday’s Boston Globe and Paul Krugman’s New York Times column from yesterday.

The Globe article by Joe Keohane in the Ideas section was titled “How Facts Backfire”  and the role factual information plays in a democracy.  It was pretty bleak and discouraging.

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

Paul Krugman wrote Friday about the Republicans proposed economic plan.  Basically tax cuts for the rich and nothing for the rest of us according to Krugman.

Republicans are feeling good about the midterms — so good that they’ve started saying what they really think. This week the party’s Senate leadership stopped pretending that it cares about deficits, stating explicitly that while we can’t afford to aid the unemployed or prevent mass layoffs of schoolteachers, cost is literally no object when it comes to tax cuts for the affluent

And that’s one reason — there are others — why you should fear the consequences if the G.O.P. actually does as well in November as it hopes.

For a while, leading Republicans posed as stern foes of federal red ink. Two weeks ago, in the official G.O.P. response to President Obama’s weekly radio address, Senator Saxby Chambliss devoted his entire time to the evils of government debt, “one of the most dangerous threats confronting America today.” He went on, “At some point we have to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

But this past Monday Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, was asked the obvious question: if deficits are so worrisome, what about the budgetary cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which the Obama administration wants to let expire but Republicans want to make permanent? What should replace $650 billion or more in lost revenue over the next decade?

His answer was breathtaking: “You do need to offset the cost of increased spending. And that’s what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.” So $30 billion in aid to the unemployed is unaffordable, but 20 times that much in tax cuts for the rich doesn’t count.

The next day, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, confirmed that Mr. Kyl was giving the official party line: “There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”

The Republicans seem to be making it pretty clear that they want to go back to the old economic way.  Krugman continues

But we’re talking about voodoo economics here, so perhaps it’s not surprising that belief in the magical powers of tax cuts is a zombie doctrine: no matter how many times you kill it with facts, it just keeps coming back. And despite repeated failure in practice, it is, more than ever, the official view of the G.O.P.

Why should this scare you? On paper, solving America’s long-run fiscal problems is eminently doable: stronger cost control for Medicare plus a moderate rise in taxes would get us most of the way there. And the perception that the deficit is manageable has helped keep U.S. borrowing costs low.

But if politicians who insist that the way to reduce deficits is to cut taxes, not raise them, start winning elections again, how much faith can anyone have that we’ll do what needs to be done? Yes, we can have a fiscal crisis. But if we do, it won’t be because we’ve spent too much trying to create jobs and help the unemployed. It will be because investors have looked at our politics and concluded, with justification, that we’ve turned into a banana republic.

Krugman also looks at the facts

…But the real news here is the confirmation that Republicans remain committed to deep voodoo, the claim that cutting taxes actually increases revenues.It’s not true, of course. Ronald Reagan said that his tax cuts would reduce deficits, then presided over a near-tripling of federal debt. When Bill Clinton raised taxes on top incomes, conservatives predicted economic disaster; what actually followed was an economic boom and a remarkable swing from budget deficit to surplus. Then the Bush tax cuts came along, helping turn that surplus into a persistent deficit, even before the crash.

So the facts seem to be higher taxes on higher incomes results in lower deficits and more economic benefit for the rest of us.  But if we believe Joe Keohane, the facts don’t matter much to those that have settled beliefs.

…Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

So how exactly do the Democrats combat all the Republican nonsense?  Not only the Kyl and McConnell quotes that Krugman mentions, but also statements that if the Republicans take over during the mid-terms they will repeal the health and financial reforms.  They know very well that if they try, there will be a Presidential veto and that they will not be able to keep that promise, but despite that fact, they will be believed.  Keohane discusses a number of studies and possibilities but the most immediate solution to this problem seems to be increasing self-esteem.

One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

Increasing the self-esteem of the American electorate right now means creating jobs and making some radical moves on the economy.  Some of the benefits of the reforms will also begin to impact voters by fall.

The Democrats should take Eugene Robinson’s advice on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown last night. 

I mean it’s not like the Democrats don’t have something to run on this fall. So get out there and run on it.

Gene also said in a recent column in the Washington Post

One reason I’m not so confident of a Republican blowout in the fall is that while polls clearly show that the country is in an anti-incumbent mood, there’s also considerable evidence that people see the GOP as part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new Post-ABC News poll, for example, showed that 58 percent of voters have “just some” confidence, or even less, in President Obama’s leadership, and that 68 percent were similarly doubtful about the ability of congressional Democrats to lead. But 72 percent had little or no faith in congressional Republicans — which suggests to me that the GOP has work to do before its leaders start picking out new office suites in the Capitol.

Another reason for caution is that the Republican Party is out of step with the American public on so many issues. Americans want to see unemployment benefits extended. They want tougher financial regulation, complete with consumer protections. Even health-care reform, which the GOP succeeded in painting as the apocalypse, becomes more popular as the months pass and somehow the world does not end.

I have to believe that there is a large portion of the American electorate that can be swayed by facts.  And the ray of hope is in the slide that Olbermann showed with the results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll which indicates that the majority would like more, not less regulation of Wall Street, big business, the health care industry and, by a big margin, the oil industry.  They won’t get that from the Republicans who want a moratorium on regulation.