THE BLOG

The Republican War on Reality, Revisited

09/28/2012 12:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2012

A year ago, in discussing the Republican war on reality, I highlighted a column by George Will in which the dean of conservative punditry expressed dismay at the prospect of Mitt Romney becoming the GOP nominee. Will wrote:

"Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from 'data' ... Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?"

In one sense, Will was quite prescient in his column -- he worried that Romney's lack of principle would come to demoralize GOP ground troops and hurt Republicans down ballot to boot. This may be coming to pass, though given the field of contenders for the GOP nomination, Romney was always the best they were going to do.

But in terms of a respect for 'data,' Will needn't have worried. While it's not clear what Romney takes his bearings from, at this stage of his career, it ain't facts. The GOP nominee has mostly embraced his party's contempt for reality, running his campaign based on serial gross distortions and falsehoods. That Romney is likely doing this for show, not based on any core conviction about the things he spews, is precisely what's so revealing. He's the standard-bearer of a party for which it's entirely commonplace nowadays to foment antipathy toward outgroups and the downtrodden, and to stoke resentment at anyone who would dare suggest that government might have a role to play in helping such folks. Attempts to counter this worldview with data are only met with ever more furious denunciations.

I previously wrote:

"Twenty years ago, conservatives launched a full-throated attack on "political correctness" and "relativism" because of their frustration with an academic climate that challenged their ability to offer judgments unfettered by cultural sensitivities about an increasingly diverse and complex world. Such sensitivities blunted their ability to make clear, categorical moral statements about right and wrong, leading to "the death of outrage," as William Bennett put it. What's bracing to see in 2011 is that facts themselves represent the same impediment for conservatives that political correctness did two decades ago -- as an appalling constraint on the right's God-given right to unabashed condemnation."

This sensibility has only deepened in the past year and includes a striking new facet -- polling denialism. With growing horror, the right-wing is watching the detested president take what appears to be a solid lead in virtually all major polls (including those of FOX). Its increasingly agitated response to that development? Insist that the polls are hopelessly biased. The new darling of the moment in this effort has adopted what Jonathan Chait politely describes as "a unique interpretive methodology to public polling." But that hardly matters. Obama is winning, say pretty much all the polls and this can't be, because he's the personification of demonic evil. Since this can't be happening, it isn't.

Plenty of mainstream commentators have prefaced discussions of this polling denialism by noting that liberals complained about polls showing Bush with a lead over Kerry in 2004. But find me major liberal media outlets in 2004 that pushed the theory that pollsters were engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to throw the election? Go ahead. I'll wait. And let's clear one thing up right now -- for all of those who insist that Democrats have their own conspiracies about rigged elections, can we please stop with the false equivalencies? Consider this -- what do you think would be the reaction of the American right if Barack Obama had:

a) lost the popular vote in 2008 to John McCain (in actuality, not in ACORN vote fraud la-la land)
b) but his brother were the governor of the state whose electoral votes decided the election
c) and that brother had successfully purged the voter rolls of what would almost certainly have been the deciding margin of voters in that state for John McCain
d) and a 5-4 liberal majority on the Supreme Court had decided to disallow a recount of the votes, despite a margin of only about 500 votes, out of six million cast?

It's hard to fathom the depth of ugliness we'd be witnessing and questionable how Obama would have been able to govern at all.

Republicans loved to tell Democrats to stop being a bunch of whining babies after Bush won in 2000. But Democrats' frustration over the result was based on a factual record that reasonable people would find frustrating. What has the right got in response to Obama's 2008 election? Nonsense about now-defunct ACORN and a pathetic years-long effort to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States (this is not a fringe position, by the way. Polls consistently find that a third to a half or more of Republicans still believe President Obama was born outside the United States). And now in 2012, in a clear effort to de-legitimize what may be a second Obama victory, a preposterous story about polling conspiracies.

Joshua Holland has written that the polling conspiracy story isn't merely another absurd passing fancy. It's a dangerous gambit aimed at ensuring that a significant swath of the population will refuse to accept that Barack Obama is their president. What consequences this might have, I don't know (and Obama's re-election is certainly not a foregone conclusion).

Look, we all have fantasy versions of how our lives should be and how the world should work. And we all wish at times, to varying degrees, that pesky reality wouldn't be such an encumbrance to the fulfillment of those fantasies.

But to cultivate those indulgences as central to a political movement is a different animal. The growing contempt of large swaths of the American right for science, facts, probability theory -- for the most basic understandings of truth as it's been established across the enlightenment era makes the possibility of finding any common ground for solving problems in the real world a near-impossibility. We know that public figures of all stripes adopt positions that they think will get them elected, regardless of whether they actually believe what they say. And once elections are in the rear-view mirror, we can hope that there will be some backing-away from some of the more preposterous assertions about reality. It's just one reason why election day -- and I think there's still a consensus on what day that is -- can't get here fast enough.