Reality-Based Election

The phrase “reality-based” entered the lexicon last weekend, in a New York Times Magazine story by Ron Suskind, titled Without a Doubt. The story contained the following remarkable passage:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Salon has an interview interview with Suskind, titled Reality-based Reporting.

Along these lines, a public attitudes poll released yesterday by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes shows how voters’ understanding of reality itself is affecting the election. From the survey:

72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these points.

Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. Here again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have exactly opposite perceptions.

This tendency of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information extends to other realms as well. Despite an abundance of evidence–including polls conducted by Gallup International in 38 countries, and more recently by a consortium of leading newspapers in 10 major countries–only 31% of Bush supporters recognize that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq. Forty-two percent assume that views are evenly divided, and 26% assume that the majority approves. Among Kerry supporters, 74% assume that the majority of the world is opposed.

Similarly, 57% of Bush supporters assume that the majority of people in the world would favor Bush’s reelection; 33% assumed that views are evenly divided and only 9% assumed that Kerry would be preferred. A recent poll by GlobeScan and PIPA of 35 of the major countries around the world found that in 30, a majority or plurality favored Kerry, while in just 3 Bush was favored. On average, Kerry was preferred more than two to one.

Bush supporters also have numerous misperceptions about Bush’s international policy positions. Majorities incorrectly assume that Bush supports multilateral approaches to various international issues–the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the treaty banning land mines (72%)–and for addressing the problem of global warming: 51% incorrectly assume he favors US participation in the Kyoto treaty. After he denounced the International Criminal Court in the debates, the perception that he favored it dropped from 66%, but still 53% continue to believe that he favors it. An overwhelming 74% incorrectly assumes that he favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. In all these cases, majorities of Bush supporters favor the positions they impute to Bush. Kerry supporters are much more accurate in their perceptions of his positions on these issues.

I think this points to a major failing on the part of those opposed to Bush. The Republican “machine” – their network of “think tanks”, and advocacy/communications ideology marketing organizations – has for decades studied how people receive and retain information about the world and is using that information to get their information into people’s minds.

And they certainly have been using their understanding of the ways people receive and retain information to full advantage in this election. We should not underestimate how important the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and Fox News are to the election process! I suspect that many of you sophisticated, well-informed blog readers don’t know that Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. reported — over and over — that the recent Iraq Duelfer WMD report supported President Bush’s position that Iraq had WMD, and that the 9/11 Commission found that Iraq did support al Queda! You probably assumed that these reports would help Kerry in the election because they flatly contradicted Bush’s positions. But Limbaugh and the rest have a lot of listeners and viewers, and they repeated over and over that the reports backed up President Bush, as this poll shows.

How many of us make assumptions based on what we know about the facts? But what if others are using different facts? What if others believe that 2+2=5, and are using that as the basis for their decision making? You can not effectively communicate with them if your arguments start with an assumption that you share agreement that 2+2=4, when actually you do not. Instead, to be effective, you need to start your discussion by proving that 2+2=4!

Where MoveOn and The Media Fund have been running election ads based on an assumption that basic facts are understood, it might have been better to run ads that served the function of news organizations and simply reported over and over nothing more than basic facts, like that the Duelfer Iraqi WMD and the 9/11 Commission reports did NOT back up Bush. That is the starting point — proving that 2+2=4 before you can move on to broader arguments. Another example of the basic facts problem — as we saw above, the survey found that among Bush supporters, “An overwhelming 74% incorrectly assumes that he favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.” Sheesh.

When President Bush said during the most recent debate that we should not accept mainstream news organizations as credible sources of factual information, he was revealing his understanding of the core deciding factor of this election, in my opinion. That core fact is that people are being propagandized by a right-wing machine that simply tells lies. They are intentionally misinforming people, tricking them into voting for people who will, once in office, do things like hand their retirement savings over to big corporations, start wars, ignore public health concerns — and tell them not to believe what they hear on the “mainstream” news.

The entire report of findings is available as a PDF document here.