Monday, January 10, 2005

The unreality-based community 

Marc Danner has a fascinating and horrifying account, "How Bush Really Won," of the Bush rallies during campaign 2004 in that other New York publication besides the The Yorker that actually does reporting, The New York Review of Books:

Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong. Steven Kull, the public opinion expert at the University of Maryland who authored the study from which these numbers are drawn, acknowledges that although one reason they "cling so tightly to beliefs that have been so visibly refuted...is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs," the prevalence, and persistence, of these misperceptions is "probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news." Rather, Kull writes, "Bush supporters cling to these beliefs because they are necessary for their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq":

Asked whether the US should have gone to war with Iraq if US intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61 percent assume that in this case the president would not have. To support the president and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions is difficult to bear, especially in light of the continuing costs in terms of lives and money. Apparently, to avoid this cognitive dissonance, Bush supporters suppress awareness of unsettling information. [See Steven Kull et al., The Separate Reality of Bush and Kerry Supporters (PIPA/Knowledge Networks, October 21, 2004), p. 13.]

This analysis suggests the difficulties Kerry faced in pressing home his highly "fact-dependent" argument that the Iraq war was separate from the war on terror and thus a mistaken distraction from it. Not only did accepting the point require a good deal of sophistication and knowledge, not only did it seem to contradict the evidence on Americans' television screens each night, which often showed vivid depictions of terrorism in Iraq; it also seemed to imply to some voters that they should take what must have seemed an unpatriotic position. For if they accepted the false pretenses on which the war had been based, how could they go on supporting it, as Kerry, somewhat illogically and even dishonestly, seemed to be asking them to do?

Those running the Bush campaign clearly counted on the talent and influence of impressive propagandists like Limbaugh, and the help they received from an often acquiescent mainstream press. More, they counted on the President's reputation for forthrightness, together with the political folk wisdom that many people, particularly "during wartime," believe "the man, not the fact." When Bush, in full rhetorical flower in Tinker Field, declared to his delirious audience that "Americans need a president who doesn't think terrorism is 'a nuisance,'" my neighbor Ms. Richardson-Pinto nudged me with her elbow and shouted over the laughter and cheers, "Do you believe Kerry said that?" Actually, I shouted into her ear, Kerry hadn't said that, and then I paraphrased for her the actual quotation:

We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution... [and] illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where...it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.[8]

Hardly exceptional; indeed, Bush himself had only weeks before said something very similar. Ms. Richardson-Pinto, a well-educated, worldly woman —a doctor, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women's softball— listened to me intently, nodded politely, began to form a question, and then, thinking better of it, looked at me for a moment longer before turning back to the President. She'd had a choice what—or rather whom—to believe; and she'd made it.
(via New York Review of Books)

How to get Bush voters to unmake their choices? Could it be that the cognitive dissonance is simply too great?

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