Reality bites

The most striking political development of the last decade or so has been the abandonment, by the political right, of any concern with reality. Mitt Romney ran the most deceitful and dishonest campaign in US political history, vowing not to be deterred by fact-checkers. His partisans, in the US and Australia have made denial of reality an artform. This approach has had some remarkable successes, notably in delaying action against climate change. But there is always the risk that deception will turn into self-deception and the US Presidential election illustrated that, with the emergence of “poll trutherism”, the belief that the polls pointing to Obama’s re-election were skewed in order to encourage Democratic turnout.

Now that poll-based predictions have turned out to be as close to accurate as statistical theory would predict, how will the right react? I can think of three possibilities

(a) Going deeper down the rabbit hole with the idea that the “increase Democratic turnout” strategy ensured that the polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy
(b) Attempting to return to reality on this issue, while maintaining delusional positions on other issues, and maintaining faith in the pundits who led them astray this time round
(c) A serious attempt to shift to a policy discourse based on evidence and analysis rather than talking points in support of positions chosen on a basis of tribal faith

I can’t imagine much progress towards (c). Apart from anything else, most of the existing rightwing commentariat would be unemployable if this were required of them. So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of (a), but it may well be bubbling below the surface. Still, at this point (b) looks most likely.

47 thoughts on “Reality bites

  1. It wasn’t just the right wing crazies who dumped all over Nate Silver and Sam Wang and their statistical models. It was also the professional political commentators who saw – and with some justification – the threat that these guys posed. The professionals were telling everyone that it was too close to call, while Silver (a baseball analyst) and Wang (a neuro scientist), for weeks if not months had their models saying that Obama had a 90% probability of winning, and all with some fairly basic Bayesian statistics and some software that could process large amounts of data.

    Silver and Wang predicted the results in virtually every state (maybe not Florida) and thus predicted the electoral college virtually exactly.

    This is a big victory for rational, evidence-based science and a big loss for prejudice and gut feeling (and ad hominen attacks to which Silver, in particular, was subject).

    Will this to translate to Republicans judging climate science by the usual criteria for judging science (logic and evidence)? Not right away, but it might lead to a battle in the Republican party between the rationalists (such as still exist) and the faithful.

  2. My take is slightly different to yours.

    My impression is that Obama did slightly better than the polls predicted.

    An explanation has been offered up during the campaign about a sampling error that all reputable pollsters use phones to poll. apparently by law they are forbidden to call mobiles. This biases the poll towards the Republicans.

    Exploration of this will probably be buried because it appears to me that the point of polling is bragging rights (to make your candidate look like a winner), rather than estimating the likely outcome of an event.

  3. In monitoring the right-wing reaction to Nate Silver, I noticed that they were quick to jump on any mention of Romney successes or momentum, but both before and after the Romney surge, when an Obama win was indicated, reactions ranged from ignoring Silver to (most recently) personal attacks. I don’t think that their reaction to the pollsters will change. To paraphrase my quote from Krugman in another comment, the right simply does not believe in objective reality, ie, data free from political ideology.

    I am sadly confident that this mindset will continue until the cracks in the conservative platform become blindingly obvious and they sink to a historic defeat. Gazing into my crystal ball, I believe that the Republicans will continue with their current charades so long as they have a lower house majority. With the much improved economy and demographic changes that favour the Dems, the 2016 Presidential election might prove to be their Waterloo and force a huge ideological shift towards the centre.

  4. Nate called 50 states correctly, some on wafer thin margins. He also pointed to the underlying logic of the electoral college model and what that meant for candidates. That said, at the Romney HQ, the reaction to CNN’s call of the election was loud booing and demands to switch to Fox’s coverage, as if that would change the outcome!

    If I were the GOP strategists, I’d be looking how to get the young and the women and the non-whites onside, while winking enough at the Tea Party to say “Preselect me and keep me electable. Once I’m in power, we can go back to core beliefs.”

    Romney was in the trap that to be President he needed to say what the Tea Party wanted to hear, but to be President he needed to say what most Americans wanted to hear.

    Interesting side note: I understand the US Ambassador to Australia expressed some admiration for compulsory voting today.

  5. “Mitt Romney ran the most deceitful and dishonest campaign in US political history”

    This sounds like ideological exaggeration – the world is always getting worse, or one’s opponents are always the worst people ever, and so on. But maybe I’m wrong; I wasn’t paying much attention. So please give me some evidence; a reason to believe that this isn’t, you know, The Biggest Politically-Motivated Exaggeration Ever.

  6. if you look at much of the fact-checking of both candidates seems to be nit picking and assuming that people have, or should have perfect recall of their countless briefing papers.

    Bill Clinton apparently had the best memory in modern american politics. He found these abilities were tested to breaking point when he became president. His public speaking certainly improved out of sight.

  7. The most striking political development of modern “democratic” politics has been the convergence of “left” and “right” to a point that would have been called “far right” a generation ago. The neocon economic position (neoclassical economics) is completely dominant and espoused by all major parties. The position of armed intervention, regime change and resource appropriation in other sovereign nations (where they are weak enough to bully) is also the position of all major parties in the “democratic” West.

    In terms of effective power, economic policy, economic system and general public discourse we (Australia, US etc.) are effectively one-party, one-ideology states. I have made the point before on this blog that it is possible for a nation to be democratic (more or less) domestically but to act fascistically towards weak foreign nations and groups. The true test of a genuinely democratic and humane nation of power would be how it treats outsiders.

  8. One trope which has emerged in the commentary of both Bolt and Akerman on the election result, and to which Catallaxy has succumbed hopelessly, is that the “workers” are being outnumbered and “outbred” by the people Romney called the 47 per cent. This is invoked in close harness with observations about the ethnic split in voting behaviour, such as this charming effort from Bolt:

    “The Latino and African American voters are also likely to be the kind of people with their hand out for benefits.”

  9. That’s hilarious coming from Bolt. That guy singlehandedly bankrupted a radio station, works for the loss-making arm of Newscorp and has protected status at the financially crumbling Channel 10.

    All this while holding the title of “Second Least Trusted Voice in Australian Media”.

    And 2 Tanners:

    “…at the Romney HQ, the reaction to CNN’s call of the election was loud booing and demands to switch to Fox’s coverage, as if that would change the outcome!”


  10. Unfo rtunately, Bolt and Akerman have readers who they can influence, usually for the worst.

  11. There is now a thread at Catallaxy titled “DC: Obama 91.4% Romney 7.1%” which is absolutely rotten with the sort of racism expressed by the Bolt quote, much of it coming frmo quite well-known right-of-centre blogosphere identities.

  12. BBBaC those clowns at Catallaxy couldn’t do basic statistics which is why they say such stupid things on AGW and were made to look total idiots about the election. Poor old Rafe’s latest embarrassment about AGW is typical.

    They are almost always inaccurate, rarely if ever make corrections and seemingly love being ignorant about almost topic.

    why would they change?

  13. 2 tanners :
    Interesting side note: I understand the US Ambassador to Australia expressed some admiration for compulsory voting today.

    Speaking of Jeff Bleich, can anyone provide a reference to an interview with him where he didn’t actually utter the words “that’s a good way for a diplomat to become an ex-diplomat”?

  14. @Gaz
    Ok ok, picky though Gaz; he said in that interview “Well, you know, the best way for a diplomat to become an ex-diplomat is to comment on elections” which isn’t quite word-for-word the exact quote, but…

  15. Puerto Ricovoted for statehood. What will hold it back is democracts will win the congressional and senate seats. the same political reality holds back congressional seats for DC.

  16. @Katz There are over 200 years of American political history. If this was a discussion in which claims were to be taken literally, I think the burden of proof would be on the one making the extraordinary claim – “worst president ever” (Obama, according to steve at the pub in a nearby thread) or “most dishonest campaigner ever” (Romney, according to John Quiggin in this post).

    I think the intended meaning in John’s case, or at least a weakened version of the statement that he might defend as literally true, would be “most dishonest campaign in living memory”. Well, even then it would be instructive to see the evidence. Nixon was demonized, Reagan was demonized, Bush Jr was demonized; have they really been getting more demonic, in their campaign tactics at least?

  17. Sinclair Davidson makes an attempt at approach (c) in a post at Catoplexy titled “Ethnic voters and conservatives”. The ensuing comments thread shows that he didn’t get very far.

  18. But after reading that barking mad piece by Kates that rog linked to, it’s not obvious that Catallaxy on a really bad day is much worse than Quadrant.

    The problem, as Harry Clarke has reminded us, is that the people who write for and edit Quadrant, and who write for and moderate Catallaxy, hold positions of responsibility, influence in our society and polity, and are well connected to those who hold, or aspire to hold, positions of political and corporate power.

  19. Kates … wow.

    The blindfold slips off and for the first time he perceives the America he has been fellating his entire life.

    Hard to swallow, hey, Steve.

    Time to seek another appendage, pal.

  20. Kates is simply stark staring mad.
    most of the others are simply incompetent and lazy to boot hence their persistent and consistent inaccuracy.
    Davidson is goebellian but again is lazy and quite easy to show how misleading he is.
    Of course the ONLY two people to say the last budget was expansionary was from Catallaxy. Davidson being one. Then his piece on the ETS and the last CPI was positively embarrassing

    They obviously cannot read the national accounts or budget papers over there.

  21. @Mitchell Porter This isn’t just my view. Here’s the centrist Washington Post, referring to Romney’s “contempt” for the electorate

    and here’s the NYTimes

    “Nothing in [Obama’s] or in past campaigns, for that matter — has equaled the efforts of the Romney campaign in this realm. Its fundamental disdain for facts is something wholly new. “

  22. Risking sanity, I had a look at that Kates piece. Wow!

    As far as I can tell, the “damaged women” thesis goes something like this:

    “In the sixties Kates liked to use Playboy.
    Playboy and Greer created a generation of damaged women and a powerful ‘abortion lobby’.
    The abortion lobby was a key to the Romney’s loss because they made stupid people believe the Republicans might wind back Roe v Wade when every intelligent person knows that would be impossible, even though they had it as a policy.
    Those lying, cheating damaged women made Romney lose.”

    Couldn’t handle much more but there was something equally stupid about jealous lazy people who hate anyone ‘better’ than they are, and a powerful ‘revenge’ lobby who also got the hate vote out in force. Or something. Seriously loopy.

  23. Thanks Megan, I was wondering what it all meant.

    What I found interesting was the ad beside the article, an ad for Christian Carter who will show women how to “Catch Him and Keep Him”; “to learn what really attracts men and what pushes them away”.

    What sort of woman reads Quadrant and is interested in this sort of ‘advice’?

  24. John, John Geer, author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, argues that negative ads focus on important political issues and give voters critical information about differences between candidates. Postive ads are political fluff.

    He has an Attack Ad Hall of Fame at with youtube type links to The Living Room Candidate that has the major presidential campaign ads back to 1952. mental health warning for US political junkies.

  25. Hmm, Kates has been banging on about the ineffable inerrancy of Say’s Law for a good 25 years, something of a record for supporting the unsupportable.

    For a long time he worked in the private sector, but now that he is throwing insults at those who take the Queen’s shilling, he takes it himself as a minion of a public institution, namely RMIT.

  26. This is pathetic, Jim. Romney mentioned Big Bird himself.

    Sad to say, the Politifact guys have fallen prey to the same evenhandedness doctrine that crippled mainstream media for a long time. Republicans lie all the time about everything, and the same is true of Quadrant, Catallaxy, IPA etc. You know this as well as I do, but you keep playing silly verbal games to dodge the truth.

  27. Barack Obama: Says Mitt Romney “backed a bill that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.”Oct. 24, in a TV ad

    The ruling: Pants on Fire! There’s no evidence that Romney ever specifically opposed exceptions for rape and incest. While he supported the “human life amendment,” there are many versions and the most recent ones allow abortion after rape or incest. Romney said recently he supports those exceptions.


    In 2011, Romney explained his position on abortion in an op-ed in the National Review. It begins with “I am pro-life and believe that abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.”

    That is rather a moderate position for a Republican. While Mitt supported the “human life amendment,” there are many versions of this and the most recent ones allow abortion after rape or incest.

  28. @Jim Rose All of what you say was made null and void by Romney aide Neil Newhouse who said “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”

  29. John, thanks for the fact checking link. It shows that both sides of politics are economical with the truth and exhibit advocacy bias in the presentation of their arguments. Some have even been known to stir up resentment of outsiders and envy of the rich.

    Fortunately political discourse is based on tension among the factions and institutional checks and balances rather than hoping that someone will come down from the mountain with the way, the truth and the light.

    The social sciences has known this for a long time. It replies on critical discussion to evaluate arguments. The politics and passions of social scientists are beside the point. Stigler argued that the biography of scientists has relevance only to the problems they select in light of their passions.

    Some do commit fraud, and there is data mining and publication bias. Most of all, knowledge grows in small, partial, steps mixing error with enlightenment.

    Milton Friedman argued that drastic change in economic theory was not the result of ideological warfare or divergent political beliefs or aims. Economic theory responded almost entirely to the force of events: brute experience proved far more potent than the strongest ideological preferences.

  30. Jim, you’ve misrepresented me on a number of occasions, and shrugged it off when I pointed it out. So, I suggest you just leave this topic alone. You’re certainly not going to convince me, and I doubt anyone else.

  31. @John Quiggin as I recall, when you pointed out that I misremembered something you posted a year or two previous, I accepted I hade made an error and offered additional evidence for your point of view. I also said that:

    “John, you never get anywhere if you lose your temper and assume people lack goodwill.

    people spot that opening and use it to sideline you into a petty fight. that task of provoking such a fight is delegated to a junior member of the opposing team so that the lead members can get on with the real business of the day. manners cost you nothing and keep you in the game.

    your search for moral turpitude in the recent privatisations is an example.

    you were so busy with witchhunts for suspect numbers and dodgy cash flow estimates that you lost your best argument.

    governments are so hopeless at running businesses that they screw up even the simplest of ownership task, which is selling the asset for a good price. the politics of the sale will overrule commercial considerations.

    p.s. John, obviously, your google blog search skills are better than mine. also, if you can remember a blog post of 22 or so months ago, it is time for you to get out more.”

  32. Kates in his Quadrant piece seems to show projection. He is bitter towards those he disagrees with and probably has had problems relating to women who are uppity and think that men shouldn’t be threatening to stop them accessing proper abortion. The term prolife is a misnomer as its anti life for women which is a more accurate description. Women are right to be sceptical of those who would limit their ability to access proper abortion clinics as this has been the case for most of history. With his other unsubstantiated slurs I wonder that he can call himself an economist although he is economical with the truth.

  33. @Jim Rose

    The more you try, the more you fail.

    You silly silly man, all the effort you put in to make a point, any point, and despite all the responses that should have started you thinking that you might be a bit wrong, the responses that should have shamed you, you continue to blather on, to what end?

    What do you want?

    Is it time for you to bugger off and find another hobby, one that will be more productive and maybe bring you some peace of mind and perhaps also one more suited to your cognitive abilities. Do they have Old Bloke Shed’s where you live?

    You say, so foolishly, to JQ “if you can remember a blog post of 22 or so months ago, it is time for you to get out more”

    You really don’t realise that some people have cognitive skills far superior to yours?

  34. @Julie Thomas There you go again; equating political differences with ill-will, malice and ignorance. Puts off the day when you have to think more deeply about why your ideas are unpopular or were recently rejected as out-of-touch.

    The only politicians that have been rejected by the voters recently for breaking promises and for being untrustworthy were Rudd and Gillard.

    Labour struggles to win a third of the primary vote. Three-quarters of the electorate voted 1 for someone else than Labor in two recent state elections.

    Then there is the fantasy that Romney and the GOP are extremists. The GOP has consistently won close to half or more than half of the American electorate with the except when Perot was running and split the fiscal conservative vote. The last democratic party landslide was LBJ.

    Neither Mitt or Obama are extremists if they can win about half the electorate.

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