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The Closing of the American (Right's) Mind

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There's been a wide-ranging discussion on the inter-tubes in the past few weeks about something Julian Sanchez termed "epistemic closure" -- the increasing insularity of the right-wing media and information environment.

Sanchez' original post on the subject laid out the basic argument:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they're liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

And Paul Waldman has captured well how that plays out in differences between conservatives and liberals:

As someone commented somewhere along the way, the difference between the left and the right isn't that the left doesn't have its own ideological information sources but that they see these as an addition to those sources that do actual news-gathering, not a substitute for them. Progressives like Rachel Maddow, but nobody thinks that if you watch her show, you now no longer need to read the newspaper or listen to NPR to understand what's going on in the world (and Maddow's network includes, among other things, three hours of Joe Scarborough every morning). Quite a few conservatives, on the other hand, believe that if you're listening to Rush Limbaugh or watching Glenn Beck, then they'll tell you everything you need to know. And of course, one of the things people like Limbaugh and Beck are constantly telling their audience is don't pay attention to the mainstream media, because they're filling you with liberal lies.

While there may be "groupthink" that happens on the left, what you don't generally get is huge numbers of progressives gripped by beliefs that are simply factually untrue. This happens all the time on the right. We found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Barack Obama isn't a U.S. citizen. The health-care reform bill contains a provision for death panels. The reform mandates the hiring of 16,000 IRS agents who will be coming to arrest you if you don't get health insurance.

Democracy Corps' focus groups last Fall nicely explicated this phenomenon. In a study titled, The Very Separate World of Conservative Republicans, D-Corps made a series of observations about the insularity of the information environment to which Conservative Republicans subscribed, a response to what D-Corps saw as these Republicans' sense that they were under siege.

D-Corps found that:

Conservative Republicans passionately believe that they represent a group of people who have been targeted by a popular culture and set of liberal elites -- embodied in the liberal mainstream media -- that mock their values and are actively working to advance the downfall of the things that matter most to them in their lives -- their faith, their families, their country, and their freedom.

And:

The notion of a liberal media using its reach and power to advance a radical agenda is a given for these voters. If you do not see and understand this reality, you are not a part of their collective group and you cannot possibly understand the current political environment in our country. This creates an almost siege-like mentality, in which these conservative Republicans are always on the defensive, at all times looking for any slight against them and their beliefs and seeking to link it back to a broader effort rooted in the liberal media.

Given these realities, a highly insular media eco-system becomes an absolute necessity to provide conservative Republicans with unique access to truth in the face of this broader climate of conspiracy, decay and menace:

A combination of conservative media outlets are the means by which they have gained this knowledge, led by FOX News ("the truth tellers"), and to a lesser degree conservative talk radio. Their antipathy and distrust toward the mainstream media could not be stronger, and they fiercely defend FOX as the only truly objective news outlet.

They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country -- a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which sets them apart even more.

... they see a unique pattern of secrecy and subterfuge, abetted by either incompetence or willful neglect by the mainstream media.

The discussion of epistemic closure and right-wing media insularity is consistent with what Marc Hetherington and I have found about the distinction between authoritarians and non-authoritarians when it comes to information processing, "accuracy motivation" and a tendency to seek out only sources that confirm one's preconceptions. Waldman's point is relevant here -- it's not that the left doesn't seek out sources that confirm its biases. But what sets the right apart -- a right-wing that, our book shows, is increasingly dominated by authoritarianism -- is its far greater propensity for a priori dismissal of any sources that don't promulgate its worldview.

As we spelled out in our book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, there is a strong empirical basis for the following claims about the distinction between authoritarians and non-authoritarians:

- there is significant scholarship pointing to a clear connection between a desire for group cohesion and sameness on the one hand (traits strongly associated with authoritarian-minded individuals) and a need for cognitive closure and aversion to ambiguity on the other.

- authoritarian-minded individuals are much more likely to sacrifice accuracy in information sources for those sources that will present one-sided information that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

- there is copious data suggesting that those scoring high in authoritarianism are less likely to have a factually correct command of political affairs than those scoring lower. To cite one example of many, of those scoring on the low end of the authoritarianism scale, 19 percent answered incorrectly the question of whether Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks. Of those scoring above the mid-point, 55 percent answered that question incorrectly (and, yes, there is a correct answer to that question).

- there are striking differences between less authoritarian and more authoritarian individuals when it comes to questions like whether one likes "responsibility for thinking," with less authoritarian individuals far more likely to say that they do than are more authoritarian individuals. Similarly, less authoritarian individuals are far more likely to say that they like complex problems than are more authoritarian individuals.

Of course, as we note in the book, there are circumstances when a clear, direct, simple approach to an issue may well be the better one. And, of course, the data I mention here don't mean that every single individual in each category can be characterized in the same way. But if we're trying to understand why a movement, as a whole, has gravitated so strongly to a set of information sources that categorically dismisses any reality not consistent with its own deeply held views, there is powerful cognitive and psychological evidence to suggest that the modern American right, increasingly dominated as it is by an authoritarian mindset, would fit that bill.

In sum, the arguments about epistemic closure on the right find powerful support in a broad range of data -- experimental and statistical -- for which there is no comparable support on the left.

I know some folks will read this and say "there goes a typical liberal accusing the right of things that the left is just as (or more) guilty of." But believing that doesn't make it so.

The American right, increasingly dominated by an authoritarian worldview that is highly averse to diversity, difference and complexity has created a self-contained information environment to nurture and buttress that worldview. And its favored public figures are, in response, gravitating toward increasingly wacky and extreme ideas about how the challenges we face and what should be done about them. It's made for great ratings for FOX and extravagant riches for Beck, Limbaugh, O'Reilly and the like. But it's a dead end for thinking seriously and cogently about reality.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.