The most meaningful victory for liberals in the U.S. is not yet assured, despite a night of great news. The votes will be cast informally over the weeks, months, and years ahead.
I speak of the American conservative movement, whose most dangerous philosophical tenet—that all information must be filtered through a conservative lens, and only conservative information sources can be trusted—was dealt a body blow. This phenomenon is known as “epistemic closure,” and its defeat is crucial for the health of the republic.
Ever since the establishment of Fox News in 1996, and especially in the last few years, the belief among conservatives that “mainstream” information outlets were biased against their cause has become a marker of “true conservatism.” Those who questioned that conclusion were often shown the door. The result was a closed sphere of information feedback that, like a room with no ventilation, grew stuffy and noxious over time as the same ideas fermented all over again.
There are countless examples of epistemic closure from the last few years. They moved beyond old favorites of conservative ire, like The New York Times, into egalitarian web platforms like Wikipedia. On the conservative alternative, Conservapedia, the entry of “liberalism” has a section called, “Similarities between Communism, Nazism and liberalism.”
For liberals, the most distressing thing about epistemic closure was its self-sustainability. Those conservatives who believed in 2008 that Barack Obama was born in Kenya were generally not swayed even after he revealed his long-term birth certificate in 2011. No amount of proof and refutation would satisfy them. Slowly, the conservatives built an entire universe based on fantasy. In this universe,
- Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.
- Obamacare has a provision to create “death panels.”
- ACORN stole the 2008 presidential election.
- Norway’s Labor Party is akin to the Nazi Party.
- The Congressional Budget Office and Bureau of Labor Statistics are biased toward Democrats.
Election Day 2012 provides a rare opportunity for conservatives to kick this habit. In the weeks leading up to the election, an empirically verifiable experiment was set up (unconsciously). Election forecasters using conventional polling data were predicting a relatively easy win for Barack Obama. At Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, he estimated that at no point in 2012 would Obama have lost had the election been on that day. Princeton Professor Sam Wang estimated on Election Day that Obama had a better than 99% chance of winning. The more cautious betting markets like InTrade also favored Obama, although with far narrower odds.
On the other hand, many conservatives became convinced that they were being lied to by the pollsters, and that Mitt Romney would win handily. One website rejiggered polls by “unskewing” them to reveal a Mitt Romney lead both nationally and in crucial swing states. Conservative pundits predicted a landslide Romney victory. Most astonishingly, Romney’s own campaign advisors bought into the “skewed polling” hype and anticipated a win.
The results of the experiment were unequivocal: the national polling had been accurate, and the mainstream election forecasters even more accurate. The conservatives were completely, wildly wrong.
The question was, and is, how they will react to being so wrong. Like Truman Burbank wandering into the sea, they are now confronted with the fact that the universe they had constructed for themselves was a lie. Faced with the choice of apologizing and acknowledging the error of their ways, or denying the facts themselves, Dick Morris and Dean Chambers chose the first option. On election night, Karl Rove (nearly alone) chose the second. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, asking a refreshingly earnest question, queried the sad man, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?”
The real test will be if conservatives can apply this lesson to all of the other things they taught themselves in their closed information circuit. Will they connect the dots and reject the conspiracy theories? Will they stop treating mainstream, non-partisan news as liberal propaganda? Will universally-accepted scientific theories be acknowledged, or dismissed? Will liberal arguments be treated as having some basis in reality?
These changes to conservative epistemology will be slow and probably incomplete; they may not happen at all. But this is the best chance we’ve got to at least start a political debate in the same universe.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK. Her election was a triumph for British Tories, the modern heirs to the classical conservatism of Edmund Burke. Though Thatcher is compared to Ronald Reagan, and modern American conservatives try at all costs to invoke Reagan’s legacy, the truth is that Thatcher and the Tea Party are worlds apart. Ironically, it is liberalism (or progressivism, depending on your preferred nomenclature) that can more easily emulate a Tory way of solving America’s myriad challenges.
The chief difference between Thatcher and the Tea Party is their rationale for small-government capitalism. Tea Partiers perceive their political opposition in sinister terms, for instance thinking President Obama is actually a Manchurian candidate from Kenya. In one poll, 41% of self-identified Tea Partiers thought the President was not a U.S. citizen. In another, 92% of them thought he was leading the country towards socialism. Slogans like “don’t tread on me” betray a fiercely individualistic — crossing into mean-spirited — worldview.
By contrast, Toryism seeks to maintain personal freedom within a larger moral culture. Thatcher remarked in a 1977 speech:
[C]apital and labour together can realise that their interests are the same. We need a free economy not only for the renewed material prosperity it will bring, but because it is indispensable to individual freedom, human dignity and to a more just, more honest society.
We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the State.
This talk of a “moral society” is absent from the Tea Party language. Theirs is more evocative of Ayn Rand, who has been a major intellectual force behind Tea Party elites. Rand, for instance, speaks more frequently in the apocalyptic terms we come to expect from the teabaggers:
Every movement that seeks to enslave a country, every dictatorship or potential dictatorship, needs some minority group as a scapegoat which it can blame for the nation’s troubles and use as a justification of its own demands for dictatorial powers. In Soviet Russia, the scapegoat was the bourgeoisie; in Nazi Germany, it was the Jewish people; in America, it is the businessmen.
What it leads to is a political discourse insistent on maintaining principle instead of bargaining for results. Again, the influence of Rand is apparent:
Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of “evil,” regardless of the content of the issue (the evil is not what you are extreme about, but that you are “extreme”—i.e., consistent).
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy emphasizes the idea of objective truth — which conveniently is known only to her and her followers. Believing they know the objective truth, why should they settle for anything less? (Rand would never admit this, but this makes Objectivism frighteningly similar to Marxism.)
By contrast, Thatcher understood that the health of a democracy means respecting the decisions and beliefs of an opponent. (In fact, this is one of the crucial components of classical conservatism that Tea Partiers overlook.) When Maggie came into office as the education minister in 1970, she maintained some of Labor’s previous policies out of respect for the democratic process.
This is where the American left comes in. Since the right has punted the question of what makes a moral society — preferring instead to compose policy based loosely on the idea of “Get off my lawn!" — there is a vacuum in the moral culture of the nation. Progressives have rightly focused politics back onto economic inequality with the idea of 99% vs. 1%, but it is framed in a way that sounds more vengeful than visionary.
To reclaim the moral high ground, progressives should transform their legitimate grievances into a vision: a system that works for all, and one that is guided not just by short-term profit gains. It can only be realized by addressing the issues that Occupy Wall Street protestors have raised, but not in such stark terms. Ayn Rand’s acolytes believe the value of a human is directly tied to their net worth. Progressives now need to replace that with a value system that evaluates people’s worth based on their contribution to society’s benefit. It shouldn’t shame the principle of self-interest, but it should ask what social gains can be realized by thinking systemically.