Last week, I addressed the recent discussion of "epistemic closure" and outlined some of the evidence for how the growing authoritarianism of the American right nurtures the closed-loop, right-wing informational eco-system. Specifically, I noted the tendency of more authoritarian-minded individuals to gravitate to information sources that confirm their biases, regardless of the factual veracity of those sources. It is true, of course, that searching for confirmation of our beliefs is not confined to the right-wing. We all do it to some degree. And I should also mention that the findings about authoritarianism are not strictly partisan in nature. Republicans who are low in authoritarianism, for example, are much more likely to get basic political facts right than are Republicans who are high in authoritarianism. It's those high authoritarianism Republicans who roughly correlate with the conservative Republicans that were the focus of the Democracy Corps study from last Fall, that most clearly evince the information-processing habits I discussed. And to the degree that they are becoming evermore central to the party base, those authoritarian habits of mind have increasingly partisan consequences.
To reiterate, the growing gravitation of authoritarians to the Republican Party over the past generation is an important determinant in understanding the closed feed-back loop of the current right-wing information environment. In turn, this has created more demand for information outlets that proffer simple, black and white and even cartoonish understandings of the political world. And in just the past week, the right-wing echo chamber has amply demonstrated (again) the degree to which the American right is in thrall to a fact-free version of epistemic closure (for a technical discussion of the term as understood in philosophy, click here. I am only using the term in its currently understood political sense).
For example, Rush Limbaugh, FOX news and the echo chamber have spent the past seven days or so repeatedly insinuating that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion was a result of left-wing sabotage to undermine the case for off-shore drilling, based on pure, idle speculation. And when the echo chamber wasn't peddling that nonsense, it was busy insisting, against all the actual facts, that the Obama administration waited eight, or nine or ten or twelve days to respond to the explosion.
When not spreading transparent disinformation about the oil spill, the echo chamber, including Limbaugh, was busy insisting that the suspect in the failed Times Square bombing was a registered Democrat. Shockingly, this turned out to be untrue.
The key point here isn't that Limbaugh and FOX and Beck lie all the time. We know this already. They are propagandists, pure and simple and, though they insist otherwise for public consumption, they know perfectly well that they are engaging in deliberate misinformation. It's what they do. The key point is the vastness of their audiences and the role they play in setting the agenda for the world to which they appeal. This is why the attempts to compare Limbaugh, FOX, Beck, Hannity etc to MSNBC ultimately fail. It's not that Olbermann, for instance, isn't capable of bombast and over-heated rhetoric. He certainly is. But the raison d'etre of MSNBC isn't to deliberately misinform for propaganda purposes. In the past seven days, by contrast, the right-wing echo chamber has peddled at least three major lies about matters of the utmost import. This is par for the course - it trades in obvious falsehoods all the time.
Update: And then there is this random insanity, just today, from Glenn Beck, the guy that Democracy Corps found last fall was the hero of right-wing conservatives. Beck warned his audience that, since becoming President, Obama has "nationalize[d] all of the curriculum," and then pleaded with his audience to home school because "your childrens' lives are stake." Beck then babbled about how Marxists and other greedy individuals had menacing designs on America. What he's even talking about isn't clear, but what is clear is that he has a large audience, a substantial portion of which doesn't have any interest in how many claims he makes that are completely without factual merit.
This is simply not, in present-day America, an equal-opportunity phenomenon on the left and the right.
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.
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