Tuesday, April 27, 2010

(How) Does The Information Loop Matter?

As the closed-information-loop conversation continues, one interesting line that emerged yesterday is about the effects of the effect.  Ross Douthat argues that Fox News et al. are a political boon to Republicans but a policy disaster, and Kevin Drum mostly agrees, although he thinks that GOP policy failure is also partially the result of natural life-cycle effects, with conservative exhaustion now mirroring liberal exhaustion of the 1970s.  Both interesting pieces, but I think there's a couple of things worth clarifying.   I'll start with policy, and then talk about the effects on partisan politics.

To begin with, there's a big difference between the possibility of closed loops on rank-and-file conservatives compared to the effect on conservative elites.  I think the former is no doubt true, but I'm not sure that it has the policy effects one might think.  Consider the disastrous effect of the Iraq War on Republicans in the 2006 election.  One might think that information loops are partially responsible: Republicans spend three years using Fox News and Rush to inform voters that everything is just peachy keen in Iraq, and then when politicians want to change course, they are constrained by a rank-and-file that strongly believes in staying the course.  But I suspect that's wrong; had Republican elites wanted to change course earlier (either to a surge, or to retreat), it wouldn't have been difficult at all to rapidly educate Republican voters of the need for the new policy -- as was in fact the case for the surge after the 2006 elections, and the retreat agreed to prior to the 2008 elections. The very fact that the rank-and-file (of all parties) tend to follow opinion leaders means that making that process extraordinarily efficient may only give leaders more freedom, not less -- although to be sure those interested in public opinion may want to study whether that's actually true.

If there's a problem with policy, then, I think it's because conservative leaders are believing their own rhetoric -- something that may or may not be true.  It's hard to tease out the effects of this stuff on voters, but it's even tougher figuring out what pols or talk show hosts really think, since they're apt to say what they think voters want to hear whether they believe it or not.  However I do think that it's fairly obvious that if conservative policy-makers truly believe things that are not true, then their efforts to make good policy are likely to fail.  So: for policy dangers, I'll argue that the real issue is information loops at the elite level.

On the other hand, if epistemic closure (fine, I'll say it -- it's just awful jargon, though) is helping the Republicans politically, then we're talking about the mass level, not the elite level.  It can't possibly help Republicans to have John Boehner actually believe any fictional talking points he's using, although I can imagine it hurting them.

I disagree, however, with both Douthat and Drum on the question of whether Fox News et al. are good for the Republicans politically.  The big data point everyone points to is the first two Clinton years (pre-Fox, but with many other pieces in place), but while I do think that Bob Dole's filibuster strategy hurt Clinton, I've always argued that it was Clinton's own weaknesses that hurt him.  Health care reform in 1993-1994, in my opinion, wasn't defeated because of Rush and Betsy McCaughey; it was defeated because Ira Magaziner (and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton) did a terrible job, and the failure of health care reform hurt the Dems -- as did alienating labor over NAFTA, and various other policy and political mistakes.  But after that...in which elections did Republicans do better than one would expect based on economic and other fundamentals?  Surely not 2008 or 2006, and I'd strongly argue that 2004 doesn't fit, either.  Douthat argues for very recent GOP political success:
In a sense, the last eighteen months have been enormously successful for conservatives: The polls have turned decisively against the Democrats, the Obama White House, and liberalism in general; the Republicans have won a series of elections they weren’t expected to win; and conservatives look primed for bigger gains in November. 
But that "series of elections" is really just the MA Senate race, and possibly the NJ contest for Governor; it was hardly a surprise that Republicans won in Virginia with a Democrat in the White House, and while Republicans might win the upcoming House specials, so far they've lost ground, not gained ground, in House special elections.  As far as polls turning "decisively" against the Obama White House, in fact Obama is right around the same 50% he's been at for months now.  Which, by the way, is better than Ronald Reagan was doing at this point in his presidency.  And that's really the point, isn't it?  There's no need to look beyond the economy to find reasons for Obama's tepid approval ratings, or the somewhat worse polling numbers for the Democrats. Really -- if all we knew was that unemployment would sit at 9.7% in April 2010, would we expect any president (or his party) to be doing well in the polls?  If Republicans do manage to win 65 House seats and 10 Senate seats and a bunch of statehouses, especially if they do so with an improving economy, then I'll start looking for explanations.  Right now?  Those things haven't actually happened, and so crediting them to anyone seems awful premature to me.

So, no, to answer Dothat's question, I don't think conservatives "need Fox News."  For all the hype, it's very possible that the political achievements of Fox News, Rush, and the rest of it are limited to winning a whole bunch of ephemeral news cycles -- and if you think that's a big deal, I suspect that the guy who lives in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue would be glad to tell you some stories about Hillary Clinton winning the nomination, John McCain winning the election, and seven or eight deaths of health care reform.


  1. "But after that...in which elections did Republicans do better than one would expect based on economic and other fundamentals? "

    The GOP really didn't do better than the economic fundamentals would have predicted in 1994, IMHO. I've seen a timeline of job losses/gains for the recession of 1991, and the curve juuuust started to go up in 1994, after two/three flat years, and one declining year.

    Given that 'flat' means 'same number of jobs for a growing labor force', and the ratio of jobs to workers probably was decreasing right through sometime in 1994, at least.

  2. Those things haven't actually happened, and so crediting them to anyone seems awful premature to me.

    No, they haven't happened yet.... but they are projected to happen.

    Frankly, if I was a GOP strategist in 2009, and you had told me that as of spring of 2010:

    - GDP growth is strong
    - The economy is adding jobs
    - The unemployment rate is declining
    - The Dow is soaring
    - Obama passed his trademark domestic initiative

    and yet, still, the polls indicated a bloodbath for Democrats in November.... well, I would be very, very pleased. I would have no reason to think things would dramatically turn around before November.

    And I just might be tempted to give credit to the right-wing media machine for some of this good fortune!

  3. Barry,

    I think Clinton's lousy approval ratings (worse than the economy would have predicted) were a factor, and then the question is whether his approval ratings were low because of GOP attacks, Dole's success, and/or Clinton's mistakes.


    I think that's a pretty selective version of the economic news, especially the "adding jobs" portion of it -- we've had all of one month of adding jobs, and 2009 was brutal. Now, if economic growth in 2010 matches 4th quarter 2009, and we have steady job growth from here through November...well, if that happens, then I very much doubt that the GOP is going to win big in 2010. As it is, people overwhelmingly still believe the recession is still here, just as they did in November 1992, and I think that's the obvious reason for Democratic weakness.

    Oh, and I should have once again cited Alan Abromowitz's projection based only on the size of the Dem majority and the fact of a Dem president, which was a 37 seat GOP pickup. I saw Charlie Cook yesterday saying 30-40, so I'd say the current projections are exactly what one would expect without any Fox News effect at all.


  4. I don't think the importance of Fox, Rush etc is in their misinformation as much as it is in motivating their base. They reach that 20 - 22% of the population that are authoritarian followers, and get them to the polls. That;s why preaching to the choir is important. 20% of the population is a damned potent block, on top of other conservatives and whatever centrists they can sway.

    One problem with democracy is that fools vote, while some of the thinking people say, "what's the use?" and stay home. Presidential Elections are seldom far from 54-46. A solid, dependable voting block can make a big difference.

    Only part of why we are so screwed,


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