Epistemic closure, cognitive dissonance, self-constructed realities, massive denial–these are very much my subjects. How odd to see name journalists, whose bylines appear in high-circulation journals and widely-read blogs, suddenly writing about them–and in relation to high powered, mainstream Republicans rather than wild-eyed 911 Truthers and birthers.
Peggy Noonan’s last Wall Street Journal blog before the election took me a little aback. “Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us?” she wrote. “Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.” The Democrats might have the punchcards locked up, as it were, but the Republicans have cheering crowds. Why calculate odds when you can count up yard signs; why study electoral college scenarios when you can feel the palpable excitement at Romney’s rallies?
Looking at the two candidates side by side at the Al Smith dinner, Noonan continued, Obama looked “distracted, and his smiles seemed forced. He looked like a man who’d just seen some bad internal polling. Romney? Expansive, hilarious, self-spoofing, with a few jokes of finely calibrated meanness that were just perfect for the crowd. He looked like a president. He looked like someone who’d just seen good internals.”
After I’d wrapped my head around Noonan’s improbably Reaganesque word portrait of Romney (just a few weeks earlier, remember, she’d described his campaign as a “rolling calamity”), my reaction was, “Why would Romney’s internal polls have any more or less credibility than the surveys that anyone can read and parse at Nate Silver or Politico or CNN?” It’s not as though candidates are granted access to top secret data that Gallup or PPP or Monmouth University are debarred from.
But in a surreal twist, Noonan had gotten it exactly right. Not about the non-existent Romney boom, but about those internals. As it turned out, Romney was in such good spirits because he had seen some really good numbers–and so had most of the other high profile Republican losers. By all accounts, they were genuinely stunned when the election didn’t go their way.
As Alexander Burns wrote in Politico :
Republicans greatly overestimated their national position. Operatives and activists rejected public polling data that showed substantially more voters identifying themselves as Democrats in states like Ohio and Virginia, giving Republicans an unwarranted sense of confidence that crumbled last Tuesday.
Democratic pollster Jeff Pollock said it was incomprehensible to him how strategists on the other side so dramatically missed the mark in so many races — especially, he said, since “many of the polls that were in the public domain were proven to be right.”
“The unwritten truth is that there were a tremendous number of polls that were clearly incorrect. And unfortunately, many of those polls seemed to come in congressional and other races by Republican polling firms,” said Pollock, who heads the firm Global Strategy Group and polled for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. “I wish I could tell you how those numbers came to pass — numbers in congressional districts where they showed challengers ahead by 5 points and they ended up losing. Numbers in congressional districts where they showed challengers ahead by 5 points and Mitt Romney winning by double digits in a congressional district he ended up losing.”
Back in 2004, an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (widely reputed to be Karl Rove) famously told Ron Suskind that “Guys like [you are] ‘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.’ … “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.'”
Rove had a good long run, but his power to create his own reality appears to be waning at last.
Funny that CIA Director David Petraeus would be the first casualty of this newly unskewed post-election world. As Michael Hastings wrote in a blistering post mortem of his career:
More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image. “Perception” is key, he wrote in his 1987 Princeton dissertation: “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”
Yes, it’s not what actually happens that matters — it’s what you can convince the public it thinks happened.
Until you can’t anymore. Then the whole world is up for grabs.