When Facts Don’t Matter
Left Reflections on Backfire, Propaganda, and How to Fight (or Not Fight) the Right
You know the drill by now with your dodgy right-wing Republican neighbor, colleague, co-worker, sibling, uncle, or cousin who says nice things about Glenn Beck and “the Tea Party” and who can’t stop spouting off about that great left wing radical Barack Obama and how he’s “ruining the country with socialism.” He believes and often boldly states all or some of the following things, most of which he has picked up from right wing media outlets like Fox News and talk radio:
* The (in fact militantly corporatist and military-imperialist Democratic Party) poses a radical Left threat to the capitalist system and the U.S. military.
* Barack Obama (not born in the United States) is a left Marxist and an ally of radical Islam
* Barack Obama took over the auto, financial, and health care industries, putting them under the direction of socialistic big-government power.
* The Federal Reserve and numerous other top federal agencies pose imminent “socialist” threats to democracy.
* The corporate media work for and are run by extreme liberals and leftists who loathe the nation’s conservatives and democratic values.
* The progressive income tax is a communist plot.
* Obama’s policies favor the poor, blacks, immigrants and Muslims over the rich and the hard working middle class
* Obama is an advocate of reparations to compensate black Americans for centuries of slavery.
* Obama and the Democrats are strongly attached to extreme welfare expenditures for urban minorities.
* Whites and blacks have an equal chance of getting ahead in the U.S.
* Any powers exercised by the national government beyond those specifically listed in the Constitution are unconstitutional; the health reform bill is unconstitutional.
* The U.S. Constitution is a holy covenant based on divine principles.
* Americans are under serious risk of internal takeover by radical Muslims who want to overthrow democracy by imposing “Sharia Law” on the U.S.
* The U.S. has been under top-down socialist assault since the Progressive Age, when president Woodrow Wilson assaulted American freedom and prosperity with his radical agenda, setting the stage for further and ever more leftward developments under Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and, last but not least Barack Obama – “the most left wing president in American history.”
* The economy will improve significantly only if Republicans are returned to power.
* Obama and Democrats are entirely to blame for “unsustainable” U.S. deficits and debt.
* The national debt as at its highest point in U.S. history.
* Nations cannot experience economic vitality and a significant governmental debt at one and the same time.
* The Obama administration and Federal Reserve are debasing the U.S. dollar and imposing runaway inflation on the American people.
* It would be of great benefit to the economic health of the nation to abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard.
* Obama raised most Americans’ taxes in 2009 and 2010.
* The Democrats’ health care reform will radically increase the deficit and national debt.
* Tax cuts primarily for the rich are the only effective means of promoting economic stimulus.
* Anthropogenic global warming doesn’t exist or will result in no serious impact.
* Human are divinely ordained and directed to use as many fossil fuels and other raw materials as rapidly as possible.
* Efforts to address climate change are part of radical left conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth.
* American universities are loaded down with and dominated by left wing radicals who are working to brainwash students to hate the United States and American freedom and prosperity.
Each of these beliefs is egregiously false. Many are blatantly preposterous. Some of them are positively wacky and paranoid. They are dysfunctional for most of the people who hold them – not to mention the rest of us – since many of them encourage policies that enhance the ever-expanding hyper-concentration of wealth, the persistence of economic misery, and the ruination of livable ecology. It does not generally serve one’s interests to go through life holding views and making decisions (political and otherwise) based on horrific misinformation. The rich are destroying the Earth and robbing the country blind while millions of American obsess about the mythical radical Left sentiments and conspiracies of the supposed illegal alien Barack Obama and his band of militant environmentalist, black nationalist, and communist comrades like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
In the past, at family events or discussions on the stoop or over the backyard fence, you’ve spent energy trying to argue against these sorts of assertions with facts, evidence, and reality – with reason. But you’ve stopped doing that. You’ve learned that your right wing neighbor/uncle/ colleague doesn’t care about facts. He’s not into evidence and is deeply suspicious of reasoned discourse. He will defend the various ways in which he knows that 2 + 2 = 5 to his last dying breath. Facts don’t matter in his world. Confronted with rationally presented counter-evidence, with facts that do not fit his assertions, in fact, he deepens his attachment to what he believes. It’s not just that he refuses to revise his position; he embraces the position more fiercely than before. He’s like a detective who deepens his insistence that a person was killed by lightning with every bit of forensic evidence you present showing conclusively that the victim was murdered with a shot to the head.
It’s scary. We like to believe that most people know and care about what is accurate and that if presented with real facts to prove that they’re wrong they would change their views accordingly. Indeed, one of the core assumptions behind faith in democracy is that an informed citizenry is preferable to an ignorant one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. Knowledge is supposed to be the lifeblood of popular governance. If people are furnished with the facts, the notion goes, then they will be clear-headed thinkers and superior citizens. If they are ignorant or mistaken, the facts will set them straight.
In fact, by my experience with many “conservative” Americans, the response to factual disproof is exactly the opposite. Facts, I observe, do not cure their misinformation. Rather, “like an underpowered antibiotic,” writer Joe Keohane notes, “facts… actually make [that] misinformation even stronger.”1
I am not alone in this observation. Some important social-psychological research out of the University of Michigan last summer shows that misinformed Americans adhere to their original beliefs even more strongly than before when presented with contradictory facts. This dangerous tendency is particularly pronounced with “conservatives” (right wingers), who were shown in controlled surveys to deepen their partisan beliefs on weapons of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” (that Iraq had them before George W. Bush ordered invasion), Barack Obama’s birthplace (outside the U.S., according to many right wingers), immigration (harmful and rising, according to the right), welfare (harmful and supposedly a huge portion of the federal budget) and other issues when presented with evidence contradicting their beliefs. For many Americans, factual proof that a belief is false seems only to reinforce that belief’s sway over reality.
The researchers call this phenomenon “backfire” and conclude that it raises disturbing questions about citizens’ capacity for meaningful democratic participation. Sadly enough, highly misinformed right wing citizens are particularly convinced of the correctness of their positions and more highly motivated to act politically on their convictions than other citizens and study participants – something that gives their wrong-headed view outsized political significance.2
There are two hopeful silver linings in the findings. The leading backfire researcher and political scientist Brendan Nyhan performed a study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new and correcting information and revise their political beliefs tan people who had not. “In other words,” Keohane notes, “if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This,” Keohane ads, “would …explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.”
An influential experiment by University of Illinois researcher James Kuklinski determined that “conservative” citizens became more much more likely to revise their false beliefs on welfare (that it accounts for a large percentage o the federal budget, that a vast number of people receive it, that most welfare recipients are black, and that welfare payments are very high) when researchers “hit them,” in Keohane’s words, “between the eyes with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas.” When given correct information by researchers in a direct and highly interactive fashion, backfire was significantly reduced.3
Cognitive Dissonance: Rationalization Trumps Rationality
What’s behind the growing authoritarian right-wing backfire phenomenon, so disturbing to behold at family dinners and so ubiquitous in U.S. political culture? Part of the explanation lay in the venerable psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, which holds that humans are often rationalizing instead of rational beings. Particularly when people are heavily invested in a belief, evidence that undermines that belief is a blow to their ego. Counter-evidence assaults their concept of themselves as smart, rational, and together – as functional and adult. The painful dissonance that results – the conflict between (a) their sense of their own competence and (b) evidence suggesting that that sense is significantly excessive – calls for resolution. If the conflict is not reduced by changing one's belief to match the facts – a humbling experience for many, requiring a reasonable capacity for shame – it can easily the belief-holder to try to “restore consonance” by deepening their faith in the false idea, seeking support from others who hold it, and attempting to persuade others of the belief.
Cognitive dissonance theory first emerged in the social psychologist Leon Festinger's chilling McCarthy-era book, When Prophecy Fails (1956). Festinger and some fellow researchers infiltrated a cult group that stridently and confidently predicted the end of the Earth at the hands of aliens on a fixed and imminent date. Many members dedicated their worldly possessions to the group to support its mission of proselytizing doom. The day of projected doom came and the birds still tweeted and the earth still stood. A big wake-up call for the group’s members, right? Wrong. When its prediction failed, the cult did not revise its beliefs and collapse but rather deepened its faith in an imminent world collapse and expanded its membership. Group members argued that the aliens had given the world a second chance for survival, picked another future date to warn about, and widened their circle of recruitment. Admitting that they’d fallen prey to a vicious hoax and/or delusional idea would have been acknowledging an episode of extreme gullibility and/or stupidity, something that was too painful for them to do: better to tweak their mad theory and grow the circle of converts!
But surely, one might argue, the fact that these beliefs don’t work, rationally and materially speaking, for the interests of the holders undermines their hold on the minds of the believers, right? Not necessarily. Festinger and his researchers found that people tend to more deeply and doggedly internalize false beliefs precisely when the rewards they get for holding those beliefs are slight. This finding seems counter-intuitive but ego-defense provides a plausible explanation: When you get a significant external reward for advancing a false idea – the notion that the conservative neoliberal capitalist Barack Obama is a big government socialist, for example – you don’t have actually believe hat idea to rationalize ego your willingness to do that. It does not require you to actually internalize the incorrect belief. You do it because it pays. Thing are very different when there is no external reward. Then the only way to make sense of believing something false and harmful is to decide that you believe it because it’s true.
Do Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, their employer Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire arch-polluters Koch brothers (leading financial backers of “the Tea Party”), and Sarah Palin really believe that America is being bankrupted by public family cash assistance and federal worker salaries; that global warming is a radical conspiracy; and that Obama is a left peacenik who has ushered in crippling bureaucratic socialism? They may or may not but they don’t have to in order to internally justify their dissemination of such preposterous notions because those ideas are making them filthy rich. The construction worker who helped undermine his own material well-being by trumpeting the anti-union rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh garners no such ego-inflating external reward and thus feels more pressure to actually adopt the ridiculous ideas Beck and his manipulative ilk believe or pretend to believe.
The idea that self-esteem and the need to protect it is part of the backfire phenomenon is supported in Nyhan's finding that backfire falls among citizens when their sense of self-worth goes up.
But it’s not just about individual and group psychology, of course. A big part of the right-wing backfire problem arises on the political news and information supply side, so to speak. Modern democratic theory posits the standard dichotomy between an ignorant citizenry (bad for democracy) and an informed one (good for democracy). But many citizens and voters fall in neither category. They are neither well-informed nor merely uninformed. They are something worse than ignorant – they are misinformed, believing objectively false things that have been planted in their heads and senses of self esteem by extremely powerful communications and propaganda institutions like Time Warner, Comcast, and the News Corporation. The most relevant media source for right wingers is of course Fox News, which the preponderant majority of self-identified Tea Party supporters cite as by far and away their main source of political information. Along with right-wing talk radio (I still remember Sean Hannity screaming on Election Day in November 2008 that voters had “three hours left to stop the socialist takeover of this great country by voting for John McCain”), far right newspapers like Murdoch’s New York Post and right wing politicos themselves systematically foment the monumentally false ideas listed at the beginning of this article. They drive and reflect the ominous return of the right-wing “paranoid style”4 in American politics. The generation and dissemination of these ideas and style is proceeding at a record pace thanks in great measure to the spectacular expansion of right wing media.
Numerous deeply ignorant, conspiratorial, and paranoid ideas have buzzed around the margins of the American right for decades, of course, before and since the McCarthy era. Such ideas have now have resurfaced and gained legitimacy in the dominant political culture like no time since the 1950s. There are at least four basic reasons for this. First, the Republican Party continues to move rightward and no longer seems willing or able to reign in its more extreme elements. In the early 1960s, Princeton historian Sean Willentz notes, “the [John] Birch [Society] …provoked deep anxiety among conservatives, who feared being perceived as paranoids and conspiracy-mongers.” That fear has disappeared on the part of much of the current Republican elite, which rushes in many cases to align itself with “the Tea Party,” which, according to one poll in the fall of 2010, garnered support from more than 70 percent of Republicans.
Second, top Democrats seem unwilling or unable to denounce the authoritarian threat on the right. In a 1961 speech in Los Angeles, Democratic president John F. Kennedy clearly denounced those “discordant voices of extremism” that “equate[d] the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, and socialism with Communism.” There has been no such clear and explicit denunciation of the new right paranoia from President Barack Obama or other top Democrats on the whole. As Willentz notes, “Obama’s White House [in October 2010] is still struggling to make sense of its enemies. In the absence of forthright leadership, on both the right and the left, the job of standing up to extremists appears to have been left to the electorate.”5
Third, a powerful right-wing communications empire arose in the late 1980s and now holds major propaganda strongholds operating from within the very heart of mainstream media. Fox News and the vast talk radio network broadcast the delusions of hard-right propagandists and their false– and rancid-populist paranoia and rage. With all due respect to the frothing reactionism of Father Coughlin in the 1930s, Joe McCarthy’ short-lived televised bully pulpit in the 1950s, and Mort Downey in the 1980s, there’s just never been anything like the current “right wing noise machine” in American media and politics culture.
Last but not least. late 20th and early 21st century America is dangerously bereft of a really existing relevant Left capable of countering right-wing stereotypes, pushing the Democrats to enact effective and progressive programs that might keep right wing critiques at bay, and capturing legitimate popular anger that is dangerously captured and misdirected by right-wing activists and personalities.
This last point – the left wing vacuum – is very important. Noam Chomsky has argued that the Tea Party represents legitimate popular anger that “the left” would do well not to ignore or mock. Chomsky frames the Tea Party’s success as a “sign of the failure of the left” because Tea Party supporters have “real grievances” rooted in the stagnation of American wages, the growth in unemployment, and bipartisan attempts to dismantle the social welfare state. Chomsky warned that growing public anger, expressed by Middle America and the poor, carried with it the specter of radical right-wing violence.6 Chomsky advanced more elaborate and grave reflections, evoking the memory of early German Nazism:
“Right now…there is a right-wing populist uprising. It’s very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that’s not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances….And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened…so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered—‘it’s the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don’t care about you.’ Either they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on…The reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren’t we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren’t getting them anywhere else.”
“The liberal Democrats aren’t going to tell the average American, ‘Yeah, you’re being shafted because of the policies that we’ve established over the years that we’re maintaining now.’ That’s not going to be an answer. And they’re not getting answers from the left. So, there’s an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they’re very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything. It’s a crazy answer, but it’s an answer. And it’s our fault if that goes on…. So…don’t ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, “Take over your factories.”7
Now, by my own findings in a forthcoming book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) titled Crashing the Tea Party, the Tea Party phenomenon is not particularly rooted in the nation’s working and lower class majority. Its adherents are relatively affluent and petit-bourgeois and do not generally work in factories or other working class settings. Still, the left progressive vacuum that Chomsky bemoans is very real, leaving the field of popular resentment all too precariously open for the dangerous ranting and propaganda of Glenn Beck at al. It’s true that working people are “not getting answers from the left” (though here one might well ask “what left?”). And this is relevant even if it is not the case that the far right is winning over all that much of the working class and its populist anger. The left, such as it is, has been all too ready to surrender the mantle of populist rage to the dodgy, regressive, and authoritarian right.8 As Progressive magazine editor Mathew Rothschild wrote last October:
"The very character of our country is at stake…with economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit, we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon. Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class. It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people. It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants. It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans. And it’s a revolt against our black president."9
There’s a telling contrast here with Europe. As millions of European citizens flooded the streets in major social movements and marches to resist public budget, wage, and pension cuts imposed by the global economic crisis last September and October, American progressives could muster only a modest turnout in early October for the “One Nation” rally in Washington functioned primarily as a pre-election get-out-the-vote rally for the Democrats and not as a significant statement against the bipartisan elite.10
How to Respond
So what’s a good, reasonably informed left progressive supposed to do about typically white and Middle American right-wing backfire in their midst? If you must engage your right wing uncle or neighbor or colleague on political matters, the research indicates that you should do so in a particular kind of way. Be very direct and personable in your presentation of evidence. Avoid the argument that their beliefs don’t serve their interests – this could only deepen their attachment to those beliefs. Avoid anger and shaming – this will only hook them into ego defense and sharpen their belief attachments. Be sure to highlight affirmation – of the legitimacy of their anger, of their reasonable alienation from liberal elites (who really exist and can be quite infuriating, as all good leftists know), of their sense that the world is going to Hell in a hand basket (it is, actually) – in your approach. Do not ridicule. Gently suggest alternative explanations – relating to corporate and military power – for the economic and social pain and insecurity that attacks their sense of self-esteem (thereby deepening their attachment to preposterous rightist ideas) and which they attribute to the supposed socialism of Obama and the Democrats. Along the way consider the insights of Buddhist thinker Pema Chodron on what triggers shenpa, the Tibetan word for attachment:
“Here’s how shenpa shows up in everyday experience. Somebody says a harsh word and something in you tightens: instantly you’re hooked….The chain reaction of speaking or acting or obsessing happens fast…This is very personal. What was said gets to you – it triggers you…The fundamental, most basic shenpa is to ego itself: attachment to our identity, the image of who we think we are. When we experience our identity as being threatened, our self-absorption gets very strong, and shenpa automatically arises. Then there is the spin-off – such as attachment to our possessions or to our views and opinions. For example, someone criticizes your politics, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your dearest friend …As soon as the words have registered – boom its there. Shenpa is not the thoughts or emotions per se. Shenpa is preverbal, but it breeds thoughts and emotions very quickly. If we’re attentive, we can feel it happening.”11
Another approach is not to engage at all. If you lack the patience or sensitivity or other abilities required to argue in a productive way, it is probably best not to say anything at all and thereby to keep backfire at bay. Switch the topic to food or sports. Arguing with right-wingers can actually intensify the right wing threat. At the same time, it’s not at all necessary to win right wingers over to your/our position (assuming that you even could do that in the first place). It is important to keep in mind that the right wing mindset does not represent anything close to majority opinion in the U.S. That opinion is actually remarkably progressive and social democratic on numerous key and core issues relating to economic and social justice, business power, and public priorities.12 Thanks to the left and progressive institutional vacuum in this country, however, that majority progressive public opinion is savagely de-mobilized and shockingly irrelevant even as a dedicated minority of highly motivated right wing, Beck-quoting Tea Party types help (with no small assistance from the corporate and Republican elite) tilt the political and policy spectrum further and dangerously rightward. “The left” has not generally lost it working class constituency to the right (the Tea Party is not a working class social movement at all – far from it)13. It has shut itself and its constituency down (again with no small help from economic and political elites) to a startling extent, leaving the field shockingly open to the authoritarian right.14 As the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in September of 2010, anticipating the deadly consequences of the pacification and depression of what passes for a left in the U.S.: “where are the progressives? Sulking is not an alternative…the Tea Party may be pulling a fast one on the country...But if it has more audacity than everyone else, it will, I am sorry to say, get away with it.”15
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Joe Keohane, “How Facts Backfire,” Boston Globe, July 11, 2010 at http://www.boston.com/
2 Brendan Nylan, and Jason Reifler, “When Correction Fails: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior (2010), read pre-published version online athttp://www- personal.umich.edu/~bnyhan/
3 Keohane, “How Facts Backfire.”
4 Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, read at http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/
5 Sean Willentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, October 18, 2010.
6 Jon Hochschartner, “I Don’t See Much Difference: An Interview with Noam Chomsky,” Z Magazine, April 2010.
7 Noam Chomsky and Diane Krauthamer, “Worker Occupations and the Future of Radical Labor: An Interview with Noam Chomsky,” Z Magazine, February 2010, 22.
8 Paul Street, “What’s the Matter With the Democrats? Post-Massachusetts Reflections on Popular Resentment, the Liberal-Left Vacuum, and the Right Comeback,” ZNet (January 24, 2010); Lance Selfa, “Can the Right Stage a Comeback?” International Socialist Review, Issue 69 (January-February 2010).
9 Matthew Rothschild, “Rampant Xenophobia,” The Progressive (October 16, 2010), 8.
10 On the October 2 rally, see Jared Ball, “One Nation Under a Grip, Not a Groove,” Black Agenda Report, October 6, 2010; and Glen Ford, “Ignominious Surrender on the Mall,”Black Agenda Report, October 6, 2010, both at www.blackagendareport.com/?
11 Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap (Shambala, 2010), 22-23.
12 For sources and details, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), Appendix A; Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), 67–75; Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs, Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Charles Berber, “Capitalism: Big Surprises in Recent Polls,” Common Dreams (May 19, 2010) at http://www.commondreams.
13 See Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011), Chapters 3 (titled, “Tea Party ‘Super-Republicans’: Who They are and What They Believe”) and 6 (“Astroturf to the Core: Reflections on a Mass-Mediated ‘Movement’”).
14 Street, “What’s the Matter with the Democrats?”
15 E.J. Dionne, “The Tea Party Movement is a Scam,” RealClearPolitics (September 23, 2010)