Why Have Conservatives Turned Their Backs on Facts?

With the revelations of the past few weeks that the people of Alabama are almost certain to make a disgusting pedophile the next U.S. Senator from their state, (because it isn’t bad enough that he was bounced off the Alabama Supreme Court for multiple, egregious ethics violations), it sheds a whole new light on why Trump voters don’t care that their president is frequently caught telling lies, was caught on tape bragging about assaulting women, etc.

But memory, morally, and history-challenged Americans forget that this is by no means the first Republican President to be caught telling outlandish lies. As the Watergate crisis unfolded, Nixon and his minions repeatedly piled argument upon argument based on well-established facts showing that Nixon was lying and covering up crimes.

Through the Watergate hearings, the Saturday Night Massacre (in which Nixon abused his power to have special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired), and all the rest, the GOP stood by Nixon. Not until June 1974—little more than two months before Nixon resigned—did they finally abandon Nixon. And compared to those Congressional Republicans, the bunch in Washington now have exponentially fewer morals and weaker backbones than those in the 1970s.

Honestly, I’m no longer surprised to learn that people don’t like to face facts when those facts contravene their opinions. It’s right there in the most hallowed papers produced by the Founding Fathers; the Federalist Papers.

In “Federalist No. 10,” probably the most celebrated of all the essays, James Madison observes:

“As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, [man’s] opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

In other words, we love our own opinions because we have an unlimited capacity to rationalize their prejudices. And if those opinions conflict with the facts most will choose our opinions every damn time.

But Madison could not foresee the contrivance in play that we have today, any more than those revered Founding Fathers could envision individual weapons of mass destruction, or that a rabid NRA and 2nd Amendment fanatics would ignore that the ACTUAL 2nd Amendment contains the only sentence in the entire Constitution that specifically calls for the “R” word—REGULATION.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State (meaning country in the parlance of the times), the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So, we believe we are right and others are wrong because our egos won’t accept being wrong—and that has become the very essence of Trumpism.

It’s no mystery, then, why supporters postponed Nixon’s day of reckoning as long as they could after the Watergate burglary, and the same will be so for Trumpers and his fanatical, supporters; those who prefer of the Articles of Confederation, The Confederacy, white supremacy. They can’t abandon Confederate, traitorous ideals, despite thinking of themselves as patriots to the U.S., which by definition are mutually exclusive. They couldn’t abandon Nixon without indicting themselves, and Trumpers can’t desert Trump without admitting they were wrong, duped, or both.

Moreover, politics used to be about the voters. Politics is now about donors and the message, true or not, that their dollars can provide. It’s never been more evident as when 90% of Americans think we should have background checks to buy a gun, but the GOP passes a bill making it okay for the certified mentally ill to purchase weapons.

The denial of what reasonable people think of as accepted reality starts with political issues: As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels” (it doesn’t). A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters SAID they believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim (…he isn’t), but did they really believe, or did they NEED that to be true to rationalize their political bent?

Then there are the false beliefs about generally accepted science. Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time.

From there it gets really bizarre. Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama, insisted that the Trump crowd was larger.

If “truth” is judged on the basis of reason and objective “evidence,” many of the substantive positions common on the right seem to border on delusional. The left is certainly not immune to credulity, but the right seems to specialize in it. “Misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right,” concluded a team of bi-partisan scholars from the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University at a February 2017 conference. A BuzzFeed analysis found that three main hyper-conservative Facebook pages were roughly twice as likely as three leading ultraliberal Facebook pages to publish fake or misleading information.

The right wing’s disregard for facts and reasoning is not a matter of stupidity or lack of education. College-educated Republicans are actually more likely than less-educated Republicans to have believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and that “death panels” were part of the ACA. And for political conservatives, greater knowledge of science and math is associated with a greater likelihood of dismissing what almost all scientists believe about the human causation of global warming and the fact that the human race is quickly running out of time to save the existence of our planet for our grandchildren. But the truly bizarre element of that dismissal hinges on their belief that science will find a way to correct the destruction we have wrought.

It’s also not just misinformation gained from too many hours listening to Fox News, because correcting the falsehoods doesn’t change their opinions. For example, nine months following the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the percentage of Republicans who believed that he was not American-born was actually higher than before the release. Similarly, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Democrats corrected their previous overestimates of the unemployment rate after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the actual data. Republicans and Trump overestimated even more than before, but never, ever, admit their mistakes.

Mistrust of the mass media that reports what scientists and experts believe has increased among conservatives since the early ’80s (unless it involves their smartphones). The mistrust has in part been deliberately indoctrinated. The fossil fuel industry publicizes strives to obscure the climate change debate; Big Pharma hides unfavorable information on drug safety and effectiveness; and many schools in conservative areas teach students that evolution is “just a theory.” The conservative public is not confused about the findings and methods of science; they choose to not believe the truth. “Fake news” was deliberately created for political or economic gain. Donald Trump’s claims that media sites that disagree with him are “fake news” do, in fact, simply adds a big voice to their deliberate choices.

In other words, it’s not gullibility on the right that seems to provide such deep roots. However, at the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, blind faith, intuition, astrology, voodoo, etc., all appear as equally valid sources of “truth”. But there are many liberals who also have strong faith in their religions, so from where does the divide come?

You see, we Americans tend to ignore the difference between “errors” on the one hand, and “illusions” or “delusions” on the other.

Errors simply reflect lack of knowledge or poor logic, but illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes, (i.e., Columbus’s belief that he had found a new route to the Indies was a delusion, based on his wish that he had done so). But the fact is, he clearly was not the first individual there.

The inflexibility of many of the right’s beliefs, despite evidence, rationale, logic, and common sense, suggest that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are instead illusions rooted in what they wish to be true.

Of course, these limits to “objective” reasoning apply to everyone. But why is it that conservatives have taken the lead in falling off the deep end of the logic cliff?

The answer, I think, lies in the interface between reasoning processes and one’s self-image. It’s each person’s particular motivations and particular psychological makeup that affects how they search for information, in particular answers, and how they assess the accuracy and meaning, veracity and importance of the information. But conservatives and liberals typically differ in their particular psychological makeups. And if you add up all of these differences, you get our current divisions with two groups that are systematically driven to believe different “truths”.

Fairness, empathy, and kindness seem to place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives (at least towards those outside their immediate family or chosen social group) than for typical liberals. Conservatives seem to show a stronger preference for status groups, (or those who aspire to those heights but perceive bias) are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathetic.

It’s not just that Trump is “their” president, therefore they want to defend him. Their greater acceptance of believing what they wish over factual evidence may lead to greater faith that what the president says must be true, even when the “facts” would seem to indicate otherwise. In fact, The New York Times cataloged no less than 117 clearly false statements asserted publicly by Trump in just the first six months of his presidency, with no loss in his base’s support.

No doubt, we all seek to keep our social environment steady, even predictable. Opinions that might threaten relationships with family, neighbors, and friends used to be, for the most part, ignored or denied, because of the risk of disrupting the relationships. But among all Americans, the intensity of in-person social networks has declined dramatically in recent years. Church attendance, union membership, participation in community organizations, and direct political involvement have all waned. Conservatives come disproportionately from rural areas and small towns, where social networks remain smaller, but more entrenched. As a result, the opinions of family, friends, and community may be more potent in conservative hotbeds than in the more anonymous big cities where Democrats tend to dominate.

Given the above, it seems an almost insurmountable task to hope that anything could convince Trump supporters that his snake oil really isn’t the cure for whatever ails them. It’s going to simply take a massive turnout of believers in facts, in every election, to wrestle the basic fairness back into our democracy; tenacity has to become a liberal bias as well as truth.

Harvey Gold