'I Can't Keep My Mind on the Show' | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

'I Can't Keep My Mind on the Show'

My Think Again column is called "The Mainstream Media Is Missing the Point." It attempts to contrast the obsession with Tiger and Barack's golf game, with say, the lack of attention shown to the conservative billionaire/corporate purchase of the think tank world to spout the nonsense that keeps them rolling in dough. It's here.

And it's taken me thirty-seven years to build a column around my favorite Bruce song, but here we finally go. It's called "They've Got the Fever..." and it's here. (It's a long story, but I do feel responsible for getting Bruce to include it on "18 Tracks," ["The Promise," too, as it happens] though the version on my funeral playlist is the one from Winterland in 1978.)

Now here's Reed:

Not in Its Right Mind

by Reed Richardson

Journalism in this country has a problem. OK, it has lots of problems, which just this past week ranged, alphabetically, from Allen, Mike all the way up to zone coverage, flood the. But it was the Beltway media’s all too predictable hand wringing over the looming sequester and the inability of the two parties to come to a “grand bargain” that reminded me of one of its most important—and most overlooked—failures. Our political press simply does not understand how the American right-wing thinks, or to be more accurate, how differently it thinks.

This is no mere rhetorical flourish. There’s now a critical mass of scientific evidence that shows the minds of conservatives are literally structured differently than liberals. While neither ideology is immune from psychological phenomena that can muddy reality and cloud judgment—effects like motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective exposure—study after study finds that conservative thought processes are measurably more rigid and inflexible. In addition, surveys show that conservatives are noticeably more likely to embrace flawed, irrational arguments to bolster their beliefs and they’re more resistant to encountering or trusting any new evidence that might contradict said beliefs. This fundamental, cognitive disparity between liberals and conservatives can’t help but ripple through our political discourse, affecting every electoral campaign, every legislative battle, every committee meeting. And yet the Washington press corps, whose explicit job it is to tease out and explain the motives behind our government’s political stakeholders, demonstrates almost no curiosity or comprehension of how ideology and psychology interact with one another.

In his fantastic recent book, The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney addresses this very disconnect. In it, he explains how the failure to take into account these psychological differences amounts to a kind of professional negligence on the part of the press:

[T]hat response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief decision is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can’t continue. Because as President Obama’s first term has shown—from the health-care battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.

That the press would almost uniformly suffer from its own cognitive blind spot on this issue is perhaps understandable. Objective journalism’s ethos, after all, is rooted firmly in the Enlightenment ideal, which holds that the presentation of facts and revelation of truth represents the best pathway to winning an argument and/or gaining a consensus. Unfortunately, a wealth of political science has proven that people think and process information in a much more complicated, nuanced, and self-interested manner. Worse yet, we now know that dedicated attempts to highlight a myth or conspiracy theory in order to debunk or disprove it can actually backfire and end up reinforcing the falsehoods instead.

Needless to say, these observations present a rather awkward dilemma for mainstream media newsrooms. Well-meaning, overworked journalists already have enough to worry about without piling on the uncomfortable notion that, even if they do their jobs well, they might actually be making the public more, rather than less, misinformed. Nevertheless, Mooney points to plenty of evidence of what he dubs the “smart idiots” effect, where the “politically sophisticated or knowledgeable are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant.” Out of its own moral self-interest, the elite political press rejects or ignores this potentiality. Instead, it operates from an a priori Enlightenment bias—a somewhat ironic (and misplaced) faith in the rationality of its audience.

Once you understand that this is the media’s foundational belief, it’s much easier to understand why, from the perspective of conservatives, the establishment media has a perceived liberal bias. Because the journalism profession shares the same tendency toward Socratic exploration and logical persuasion that liberals do, they both think the same way. In other words, the shared bias between the establishment media and the American left-wing isn’t one that is accurately measured along a political spectrum but rather a cognitive one.

This is not to say other elements of society don’t have a cognitive tendency more aligned with conservatives—the military, speaking from experience, certainly does. But the press, and the political press especially, routinely misses this important disconnect when covering debates like the sequester. Hence, readers get served up over-simplified analysis that treats politicians from the left and right almost as commodities, heaping equal scorn on both as “unserious” about compromise. Sure, their ultimate goal—policymaking and power—is the same, but the way the two sides go about it is completely dissimilar.

Conservatives, scientific studies show, perceive the political world in a more black and white way, where ideologies engage in zero-sum battles for resources and dominance. But as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes of this worldview: “If you think about politics in a Manichaen way, then compromise is a sin. God and the devil don’t issue many bipartisan proclamations and neither should you.” Time and again, the Beltway media glides right past this basic tenet of conservative thinking only to blame Democrats and Republicans equally when yet another grand bargain that one side never sought in good faith in the first place fails to materialize.

Likewise, this myopia also involves misinterpreting the relationship between the parties and the stakes involved in political negotiations. In the current sequester fight, for instance, brute-force deficit reduction was the claimed policy prize, but the way Democrats and Republicans have approached refining it to be more fair belies the vastly different motives driving their actions.

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Democrats, who hold a more ambivalent view of deficit reduction, floated what they saw as a reasonable meet-you-more-than-halfway offer to Republicans. The GOP, though, displayed zero willingness to accept a deal that, by any logical measure, would be mostly a win for them. Instead, they’re proposing an all-or-nothing deal that gives no quarter to Democrats. Why? “Who really knows?” and “Arggh, same old gridlock!” seems to be the some of the popular mainstream media conclusions. But what’s never mentioned is that the Republicans’ intransigence—on this and almost every other fiscal issue—is wrapped up in a complete myth. That is, they believe keeping tax rates low somehow magically pays for itself, increases net revenues and reduces the deficit over time. Of course, this is absolutely false and even President George Bush’s main economic adviser, who called its adherents “snake oil salesmen” pushing a “miracle cure for what ails the economy,” has acknowledged this.

Nevertheless, this lower taxes=higher revenues fallacy has become an article of faith among Republican party leaders, and damned if they’ll violate the sanctity of it again (as is obvious from Speaker Boehner’s recent “the President got his higher taxes” rhetoric, they feel they already betrayed it in the fiscal cliff deal). So, the reason the sequester cuts will happen can be summarized by a fairly basic psychological explanation: Republicans hold low taxes for the rich as too sacred to compromise, whereas Democrats don’t hold deficit reduction sacred enough to cave completely. The former is predicated on falsehood and irrational certainty, however, whereas the latter is redolent of pragmatism and unabashed self-preservation.

Once you start to view political negotiations through the prism of how the ideologies shape each side’s thinking, their behavior becomes less of a frustrating mystery. But to bring this kind of scientific nuance to political coverage is to no doubt attract an outpouring of criticism from conservatives, many of whom already have a tenuous relationship with established theories like evolution and climate change. To accept that conservatives really do think differently does not, as Mooney explains, mean that “Republicans are somehow bad people or less intelligent.” But, by the same token, it does allow journalists to take seriously the prickly reality that today’s “Republicans really are more doggedly misinformed” about the major issues confronting our country. As he sums up in his book:

Republicans and Democrats really think about facts, about reality itself differently…[this] has dramatic consequences for policy; but perhaps even more momentous implications still for the tone and the assumptions we bring into political ‘debates.” In particular, an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach to journalism and the adjudicating of facts may simply be intellectually irresponsible. It may be just a ruse to go about this in a bipartisan way.

In the end, the media owes it not just to the country, but to intellectually honest conservatives, to gain a better understanding of how psychology bears down on political ideology. Especially if it’s to point out how often the right gets things wrong.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail:
Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Hi Reed-

I really liked your column this week and I think it is important stuff. The Progressive Caucus puts out a lot of good policy proposals and they are systematically ignored by the major media—this has been especially appalling regarding their budget. The argument is always the same: they are out of the mainstream; their ideas can't become policy. But the same is true of, say, Paul Ryan's budget. And yet things like it get blanket coverage.

I think the reason for this is that journalists are generally socially liberal but economically conservative. (This goes right along with What Liberal Media? where Eric even notes that a much stronger case can be made that the media is socially liberal.) My thinking (for what it's worth) is that if a country has relative economic equality, all of the social issues tend to fall in place. And if you don't have this, you're going to have major social issues, regardless of what the law is. In other words: raising the minimum wage is far more important than repealing DADT, even though I hated that policy.

It was strange that there was a Tea Party Response to the SOTU address when Marco Rubio is a favorite of the Tea Party. But I think it is wrong to say that he is not a moderate Republican. Rubio is not an outlier in his Party. We can say that moderate Republicans are in no sense moderate. Or we can say that the modern Republican Party banished all moderation from itself. But the really scary thing about modern American politics is that Marco Rubio is typical of one of the two major political parties.

(Last week Jonathan Bernstein [I think!] asked if liberals would rather have a reasonable Republican Party or if they'd rather it continue on and allow the Democrats to win more elections. Who could not be for a reasonable Republican Party?! Does anyone doubt that no matter how crazy the party gets that the major media will continue to treat them as if they are reasonable?)

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Sure, we should hold Israel to certain standards on human rights, but don't forget about the human rights violations of Hamas, Eric Alterman writes.

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