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For Romney and the GOP, Lying Is a Feature, Not a Bug

11/02/2012 01:29 pm 13:29:34 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

So says Rick Perlstein, the great historian of modern conservatism. In a recent essay, Perlstein traces the origins of modern movement conservatism to the direct mail and grass roots work of such right-wing icons as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, who cracked the code of how to reach and solicit die-hard opponents of social transformation in America and mobilize them to form the foundation of the modern right-wing backlash. Perlstein argues that the endless hocking of bogus cures and other products that happen to be a central feature of these right-wing fundraising operations reveals a mindset particular to the right - a susceptibility to a fantasy, "childlike" version of reality that allows its progenitors to move seamlessly from flogging Obama-is-a-Kenyan-Muslim-socialist to "reversing crippling arthritis in two days."

In that context, Mitt Romney is something other than a "compromise" candidate whose questionable conservative bona fides make him a second-best alternative for the American right. He's a personification of a snake-oil worldview in which taking people for suckers and telling them whatever they want to hear is second nature. As Romney began his rhetorical pivot to the center beginning with the first debate, many wondered whether diehard conservatives would balk at his new found moderation on abortion, regulation and so on. But the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world, con men themselves, knew full well that Romney didn't mean a word of what he said. In all likelihood, the brazenness of his lying made them respect him in a way they had not previously.

All of this is consistent with a reality of our political divide that still hasn't received sufficient attention - the degree to which people with different personality types have sorted themselves clearly into our two major political camps. The most noteworthy aspect of this sorting process has been the coalescing of authoritarian-minded individuals in the base of the Republican Party. Those folks are more likely to see the world in simple, clear, black and white terms, to balk at complexity, nuance and social change and to disdain people who look different from themselves. As I have repeated many times before, not all Republicans share this mindset and plenty of Democrats do. But by and large, the bases of the two parties now see the world very differently in these gut-level, pre-political terms. And as these worldviews translate themselves into political loyalties and stances on issues, they yield an especially acrimonious and unbridgeable-seeming political divide.

Most people, to one degree or another, seek out sources of information that confirm their understanding of the world. And most of us are likely to lapse back into seeking out the familiar and the comforting when they are under stress. But among the great failings of our political media is its ongoing insistence on false equivalency between the two major political camps. Among the ways in which this is most apparent is in characterizing the two sides' relationship to facts and data. We have clear evidence that authoritarian-minded individuals are significantly more likely to only seek out information that confirms what they already believe; that they are far more likely to reject sources of information that have been independently verified as factually accurate when it upsets their worldview; and they are much less troubled by learning that sources they relied upon to form their outlook are inaccurate than are less authoritarian-minded individuals. Stephen Colbert famously said in 2006 that "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Whether it's climate change, the realities of rape and impregnation, polling data, bureau of labor statistics or countless other examples, the core of the Republican Party has become irretrievably hostile to basic facts and certain of a dark conspiracy whenever science and data contradict their understanding of the world (Congressional Republicans' angry insistence on the withdrawal of a recent Congressional Research Service report on taxes that debunked their long-held faith on the subject is a perfect illustration). Consistent with that worldview, and convinced that they are facing an almost other-worldly evil in liberals in general and Obama in particular, any means necessary to displace that evil is undoubtedly acceptable to them. Romney's repeated lies on issue after issue and his brazen willingness to change his position fundamentally seemingly by the day, will be easier to swallow from a political party whose core constituents are already disposed toward a much more tenuous connection to truth and reality. Of course, partisans of all stripes are willing to countenance ideological apostasy from their own kind that they would never tolerate in political opponents. Widespread Democratic acceptance of Obama's abject reversals on civil liberties issues is a clear case in point for the blue team.

But these are not symmetrical phenomena. There is a demonstrable disposition among base voters on the Republican side, including large numbers of authoritarian-minded folks who see the world as a fight between good and evil in which fact and truth only matter insofar as they reaffirm these folks' view of reality. It's evident in their rejection of compromise and in their resort to sources and arguments on matters of basic science that simply fail any objective test. And Mitt Romney, if not in ideological purity, is an almost perfect vessel for a political party so constituted. The words that came out of his mouth yesterday mean nothing today. The realities of his opponents' record and policies are irrelevant outside of whatever characterization he wants to make of them. Truth, facts, the stubborn complexities of reality - these are meaningless to Romney. In this sense, Romney is, indeed, a man for this election season.