Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inexplicable -- or Epistemic Closure?

Kevin Drum is baffled by the GOP's willingness to follow Paul Ryan over a cliff on Medicare.

Really, it's pretty amazing. Just two years ago, Republicans walloped Democrats in the midterm election, at least partly due to a tsunami of ads accusing them of taking money away from Medicare. And Republicans have been on the receiving end of Medicare attack ads too. So they know perfectly well just how sensitive this issue is and how much damage it can do. And yet, somehow they convinced themselves that Paul Ryan had some kind of magic fairy dust that would make the American public sit up and suddenly say to themselves, "He's right! We do need to turn Medicare into a voucher!"

I dunno. The entire Republican Party seems to have fallen into some kind of Svengali-like trance, convinced that Paul Ryan, alone among men, can deliver the bracing tonic that will convince voters to do away with program benefits they've loved and supported for decades. The self-delusion here is inexplicable.
But we have an explanation! This is exactly what those of us who keep beating on the conservative closed information feedback loop (that phrase is mostly Jonathan Chait's, by the way) have been on about these past couple of years. Remember, the Julian Sanchez post that got everyone all hepped up about "epistemic closure" (which is just a fancy way of saying it) was about conservative actors -- elites, not masses -- really believing the (false) stuff that they were saying because they only receive information that supports the myths.

And I think that's just about right. Remember how the one that Drum is worried about works. Over on Fox News, it's axiomatic not only that reducing the deficit is necessary to make the economy healthy, but that Americans overwhelmingly support that sort of thing -- both propositions, one might note, that have plenty of support outside the conservative information loop. Moreover, it's also taken as a given that "reduce the deficit" basically means slashing government spending -- which is also overwhelmingly popular -- while also cutting taxes. Which, again, is overwhelmingly popular. The response on spending that in fact the polling shows that Americans are ambivalent about spending, supporting cuts in the abstract while opposing specific cuts, is either dismissed as so much liberal sophistry, dismissed as liberal polling bias, or perhaps just never even noticed at all.

Not only that, but Ryan and other Republicans have been arguing for years that they are the ones who are really saving Medicare; remember, their claim is that present Medicare is unsustainable and that it's the Democrats, by opposing reform, who are putting Medicare in jeopardy. Ryan's proposal, in this world, is simply the only responsible position for those who support Medicare.

Now, most of those beliefs are either nonsense or highly contentious or at least subject to other interpretations which could damage Republicans. But if you watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh and, I strongly suspect, hang out among GOP-aligned wonks, you're not hearing any of that. You literally might not know about it. Just as you might not realized how unhinged it sounds to talk about 47% of Americans as moochers, or to talk about the president who killed bin Laden as a Islamist sympathizer. Or that most Americans do not think that the main problem with George W. Bush was that he was way too liberal.

And that's just the information-flow side of it; several of us have also talked about the various perverse incentives around which perpetuate it. But I strongly suspect the information-flow portion of this goes a long, long ways to explaining what Drum finds inexplicable.


  1. It does seem that epistemic closure is on full display in this cycle. When the "47%" tape came out, I wasn't surprised to see how many Republican blog comments supported the general idea that these "moochers" should pay income taxes. But what shocked me was how many people wanted Romney to shout it from the rooftops; they actually thought it was a *winning argument* with the rest of the electorate.

    Likewise, and for much longer, it has mystified me to see how many Republican advocates think that just saying the word "Solyndra" should close any fiscal policy debate, and ignite some sort of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. They don't seem to realize that outside the rightmost 30% of the country, nobody knows what Solyndra is.

    1. Yes -- I really agree on that Solyndra point. Probably not much of a scandal however you sell it, but either way you really do need to sell it if you want anyone to care.

  2. I'm voting on epistemic closure. And just in case you missed it, see this one on Ryan from Pierce yesterday:
    The first comment is priceless.

  3. Did you see Fareed's piece in WaPo on Romney's struggles? Most coherent thing I've read from him for a while.

    I'm the Anon who's been arguing that the Republican lockstep has been thinning their bench, by reducing the number of people who might have original ideas for solving practical problems the country faces. The epistemic closure concept would also reduce the likelihood that the remaining people would be willing to offer any.

    So here's the question: do you think that failure in 2012 to gain the Presidency, or the Senate, or to keep the House, will cause Republicans to face reality? And if so, who will lead the charge? Boehner? McConnell? DeMint? A megadonor? A pundit? Or a player currently outside power?

    1. Jeb Bush (of all people) has been making heretical noises recently on immigration.

    2. There will be a strong urge to blame Romney for not being authentically conservative. That would be reinforced by the epistemic closure problem, which doesn't make people unwilling to offer ideas so much as it keeps them from realizing that ideas are needed. But, yes, an electoral catastrophe might create enough of a shock to test just how closed the loop really is.

    3. You'd think that, but 2008 was about as catastrophic an election as the GOP has had in decades and it wasn't enough. I imagine that after this election, assuming current trends continue, the GOP will just dig in and focus on the couple of Senate seats they'd need to win in 2014 for a majority...

    4. Well, as this cycle appears to be serving up a meh, status quo election, it's doubtful that anybody's epistemic closure will be challenged this time through.

      However, if Obama wins reelection, then in the bloody offyear lame duck election of 2014, I guarantee you lefties are gonna have a nice helping of challenge to your epistemic closure. ;-)

      It's actually pretty obvious that the Left would be better served if Obama lost this November, as Willard would undoubtedly give them much of what they want, in addition to somewhat defanging the Tea Party. On the other hand, a Willard loss is going to bring on the above lame duck scenario with a vengeance... and the incumbent lefty senators won't have a presidential year to gin up turnout. They'll stand alone.

      That offyear would likely be disastrous for the Left, and would set up an inevitable Walkeresque run in 2016, when Obama staggers out and his 8 years are hung around some poor lefty's neck that November.

      The great forces always shape much of what happens in politics, and it's not hard to predict the above events, unless one's epistemic closure precludes acceptance of the great forces. ;-)

    5. Oh, and I do wish you well with that white whale Ryan. ;-)

    6. I have a diff theory of gop post-Romney loss: Let 1,000 Sharon angels bloom. The GOP is on th same path th Cali GOP walked before them: 35 percent of the vote share

    7. The California model is pretty significant, especially given that it is predicated on a large, middle-class Mexican-American population. The more rural Inland Empire has a bigger share of elected Republicans, though, then the more liberal cities. To extrapolate to the rest of the country, Republicans would keep the South, and the Plains states (south of North Dakota). Democrats get all the rest.

    8. You're assuming Cali conservatives care about "vote share". I doubt they do, right now.

      They know that state is headed for fiscal and economic oblivion. Having Governor Moonbeam administer that over-the-cliff-jump was what was best for them, clearly. The key is that there will be no Porkulus II to bail the Cali Left out, now that the Obamabots and Pelosi forced the electorate to throw the Left out of US House leadership.

      It's just a matter of time in Cali, now. Sorta like in NY, IL and a few other lefty states. It's just a matter of waiting around for them to go bust, and then we'll see some real change.

      It's those great forces. They always do their work, no matter one's epistemic closure. ;-)

    9. Well, I guess if the GOP has great forces on their side then they don't need reality-base policies, popular support or any coherence. Like I said before, Let 1,000 Sharon Angles bloom!

    10. Well, the great forces aren't on anybody's "side".

      You either go over with those great forces, or you suffer epistemic closure and don't go over with them, which leads to 2010 shellackings at the local, state and federal levels, and so forth. ;-)

    11. ...we'll be seeing this in Cali, NY and IL before too long. Wisconsin seems to have recognized and accepted those great forces in an adult fashion, a few childish outbursts notwithstanding. Now we'll just have to wait for those other states to feel the weight of those forces.

      That's the thing about epistemic closure. It always gets unclosed, eventually. ;-)

    12. My god you're right. Thank god you posted on this political science website to help all us political junkies understand. Political science is meaningless! We need a science to study this mysterious great force you speak of instead!

    13. Well, in fairness Anon, Anon is right (and feel free to give yourselves whiplash with that one). In all seriousness, there are, of course, major currents in politics and the economy that do, of course, become manifest in electoral outcomes and policy.

      The problem, however, is that great forces are a lot like prophecy: a dangerous guide to the future (to quote DeLenn from Babylon 5). They are hard to interpret, difficult to understand, challenging to encompass with theory or prediction. Worst of all, any given great force lives in a cosmos inhabited by other great forces, some of them greater than it. And God (or Fate, or the Devil, or the Universe) occasionally pulls a wild card event from somewhere up his capacious sleeve. By the time things become clear, it's only because the vectors have added up to give an outcome that may, or may not, have been predicted and that contemporary scholars or pundits may, or may not, be able to understand and analyze in a useful way.

      Look, I'm working on being a three-time loser in the current political game. I predicted that the SCOTUS would overturn the ACA ... wrong. I predicted Romney would probably win ... more than likely wrong. I predicted that the GOP would take the Senate ... more than likely wrong. So out of all that mistaken bloviation I think I have learned a thing or three about identifying great forces and predicting how they will play out. A touch of humility is always best, along with a nod of deference to whatever Intelligence or Chaos is out there ready to drop something unexpected into the mix. Maybe fiscal trends and electoral rhythms will work against the Democrats over the foreseeable future. Then again, maybe economic recovery and demographic change will prove to be stronger great forces. Humility is always the best rule.

      I'll give you a couple of concrete examples. Through the vast majority of my life it was utterly ridiculous to imagine an African-American being elected President. Then one day ... it wasn't. What vectors led up to that event? Why did so many pundits, including so many major players in the Democratic Party, not realize that the time of change was at hand? Because life is a lot more complex than we usually acknowledge. I'll give a more specific one. During the legislative development of the ACA no less an expert than Mathew Dickinson, a man that knows a lot about American governing institutions, opined loudly and vigorously that Obama, Pelosi, and others were fooling themselves and that all the forces of the American legislative process were arrayed against their naive, indeed near moronic, attempt to enact major and fundamental health care reform. No less an authority than Mathew Dickinson turned out not to know what the blue blazes he was talking about. Even a man who spent an entire career studying certain great forces turned out not to understand them very well when push came to shove.

      To paraphrase an old saying, if you want to make God laugh, talk to him about great forces.

    14. Actually, God laughs at epistemic closure, as personified by those ignoring those great forces. ;-)

    15. "However, if Obama wins reelection, then in the bloody offyear lame duck election of 2014"

      I think even Democrats mostly expect to lose that one, given that it's off-year and the composition of Senate races.

      You can't force epistemic closure through expected events.

      "as Willard would undoubtedly give them much of what they want"

      Nonsense. A more interesting question would be the House--would Democrats really want to take it back? Holding both houses of Congress means you can compromise with Blue Dogs instead of the Tea Party--but it also means that Democrats would own everything, including the sequester mess.

    16. Well, they don't really have any choice, because they won't be taking back the House this cycle, and arguably not for quite some time further. But yeah, it really wouldn't do them much good, even if they did take it by fluke somehow. They surrendered political legitimacy in 2009-10, with Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap & Tax and ObamaCare. It's only crapweasel Willard that's keeping Obama in the game for reelection. And yes, that lying progressive crapweasel would give the Left 90% of what they want, and give them an opportunity to take the House in 2014, with a chance to make it work hard for them.

      It's amazing how badly Obama/Pelosi's incompetence skewed the political landscape. I cannot recall a time when you could say it was better to lose federal races, and/or that it might not even matter if you won them, but this is one of those times.

    17. You know what I would call that "great force" that you're talking about? I'd call it "electoral politics," and I'd call the study of it "political science." As it happens, we're on a blog where a professional and quite well-regarded political scientist shares his reactions to current political scientific findings and to current events with the public. If anyone has questions about why he uses complicated phrases like "epistemic closure" or what they mean, that person should read the blog posts carefully and maybe ask questions in the comment section! He or she might be very surprised to learn what the Plain Blog actually has to say about "great forces."

    18. No, actually, great forces are not "electoral politics".

      Great forces CREATE electoral politics, although their epistemic closure might preclude the epistemically closed from this simple understanding.

      And I don't really find much politically informative about this site, frankly, although its obsession with "epistemic closure" is amusingly ironic. ;-)

    19. "They surrendered political legitimacy in 2009-10, with Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap & Tax and ObamaCare."

      If Democrats can win in 2012, these issues aren't going to doom them in 2014/16. If these are the "great forces" you're counting on, you're going to have an interesting couple years. ;-)

      "And yes, that lying progressive crapweasel would give the Left 90% of what they want"

      This is still ridiculous even if you say it twice.

      "and give them an opportunity to take the House in 2014"

      This is plausible--but taking the House in 2014 just isn't that important compared to holding the White House now. Holding the House in 2014 just means passing legislation that President Romney wouldn't sign. Legislatively, Dems aren't really hoping to make much progress--merely stop the GOP from pulling us backwards. The real action will be in the executive and judicial branches.

  4. Mark Lilla's vivacious takedown of an influential conservative intellectual also shows just how far up the prestige ladder the elements of epistemic closure and disproportionate outrage have creeped. It's appropriately entitled "The Great Disconnect." One hopes that Lilla's piece might reach moderate and old-school Republicans, in the same way Brooks and Frum do:

  5. I was in Panera Bread Sunday morning, minding my business, waiting for my kid's Sunday School to end, when a kindly old gent took a seat at the table next to mine, theretofore occupied by an equally kindly old lady.

    The old gent appeared to be puttin' the moves on the lady, though his repetroire was regrettably limited, and too soon he got to the election. Though he listened to Fox News, Limbaugh and the rest, he liked Obama (doesn't everyone) but couldn't vote for him. He was thinking of writing in Gingrich, cause in his view Romney would be a better king than President (a view no doubt shared by Lord Mittens, fwiw). The problem with a President Romney, the man at the next table opined, would be Romney succumbing to the temptation to compromise with Congress, which would result in Romney cutting the "good" spending, while keeping the "bad" spending.

    I didn't press the point, dude was on the prowl after all, but he didn't clarify for his ladyfriend what the "good" spending was. Says here there's your epistemic closure; get a million old guys in a million Panera Breads having that conversation, and a sizable percentage will account for most of the $3+ T Federal Budget - pretty much everything net of the obviously sizable expenditures on the hordes of welfare queens.

    It becomes a giant game of chicken; in a world where conservative pundits can either have an honest conversation about spending, or just say if the damn liberals weren't going all Solyndra on us all the time, all would be well, who wants to be the first person to have the honest conversation?

    Ask David Frum how that goes.

    1. Maybe it's wishful thinking but I see buyers remorse in 2014 in the states that went so completely Republican. We'll see about the U.S. House this time--the blue seats that went red in 2010, but the intense unpopularity of this Congress sooner or later must be reflected in a big way.

      As for beyond that, this is the last presidential election that can ignore the climate crisis, or the diversity of the voting population.


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