Three reasons why voters are ignorant of political facts

No doubt you have heard that the Republican Governor of Texas has promised to monitor a U.S. military training exercise called “Jade Helm 15” because Tea Party websites have whipped millions of Americans into a state of hysteria.

“Jade Helm military exercise is not martial law” reads the headline of a newspaper Fact Check column.

“John McCain calls Jade Helm 15 hysteria ‘bizarre,’” says another headline, this one in the Dallas Morning News.

According to a nationwide Rasmussen poll, 45 percent of American voters “are concerned that the government will use U.S. military training operations to impose greater control over some states,” with 19 percent "very concerned." Apparently, among Tea Party voters, 82 percent are "concerned that the federal government has greater control in mind.”

What in the world is going on?

Nothing unusual. We all know that average Americans are tremendously uninformed about a wide variety of issues, from Obamacare “death panels” to supposedly widespread “voter fraud.” Most Americans think crime is going up, immigrants are overrunning the country, and the U.S. spends huge sums on foreign aid.

There are three reasons why American voters are often painfully ignorant.

FIRST, average Americans just don’t pay attention to politics or policy. They don’t often read political news or like to watch it on TV. Immediately before the 2014 congressional elections, only 38 percent of voters knew that the Republican Party controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Annenberg Poll. When voters don’t know who controls Congress, they don’t know who to blame for congressional ineptitude. Put another way, to “throw the bums out,” you need to know which side has the bums.

When voters lack basic political information, they can be led to believe that a candidate who backs some of the most mean-spirited policy in American history is actually a “compassionate” conservative, that a massive invasion was launched because of hidden "WMDs," that President Obama is a Muslim, or that climate change is a hoax.

SECOND, voters don’t recognize truth when it is presented to them. As I’ve explained in some detail previously, people seek out information that conforms to their preexisting beliefs and go out of their way to reject or ignore information that disproves those beliefs. This is called “confirmation bias” and scientists have known about it for years.

When you discuss politics with others, you may easily and often trigger the emotional part of their brains instead of the part that engages in calm, rational reasoning. When emotion is engaged, the brain will retrieve memories that have been stored up to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. So in the minds of the people you’re talking to, they not only emotionally feel you are wrong; based on cherry-picked stored information, they factually know you are wrong.

Everyone’s brain works this way. When we process information, we first assess it emotionally and then compare what’s coming in to memories of past experiences and beliefs. This is not partisan, it is human. In order to survive, our ancestors needed a strong “fight or flight” reflex—the ability to react immediately without really thinking. We still do that. The problem is, once voters get a belief in their heads—like people enjoy being on welfare—it is extremely hard to change their point of view.

THIRD, the right-wing media knowingly feeds false information to voters, and worse, the mainstream media does nothing about it. No need to convince you about the evils of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, The Drudge Report, or the Washington Times, am I right? Let’s focus on the mainstream media.

The real news media is supposed to deliver truthful information to the public and call out lies by officeholders and political actors. But over the past 20 years, the mainstream media has altered the “rules” of journalism to substitute balance for truth. In just about any political news story, the reporter will quote one side and then the other, making it seem like there is an honest difference of opinion. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a modest amount of independent research would find that one side is fabricating “facts.”

Because of this reporting method, right wingers know there is no penalty for lying. Average Americans have no idea who’s telling the truth in a typical he-said-she-said political story. Reporters could remove the incentive to lie by ignoring those “stories” or by covering them with some version of “Smith said [whatever] today but it’s simply not true.” And yet, the mainstream news will almost never state an obvious truth or point out an obvious lie. 

A corollary of the balance-the-story rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when one side’s obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when one side grabs the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. We complain about this “false equivalency” on progressive blogs, but average Americans have never heard of it.

Right wingers are not fools. They have adopted their tactics in large part because they know (1) lying often works since voters don't know political facts, (2) confirmation bias makes it difficult to change minds after right-wing lies have become beliefs, and (3) the legitimate media will almost never tell Americans the truth in a way that could possibly sink in.

Yes, progressives can frame political messages in a way that persuades average voters. At Progressive Majority Action and the Public Leadership Institute, we talk about it all the time. But there are many challenges, so realize, persuasion is hard.


The Right Wing Isn’t Crazy, It’s Strategic

So far this year…

  • Idealog_(3).jpgThe Oklahoma House passed legislation to eliminate AP American History classes from public schools because, right-wingers said, the course is too negative about America.
  • The Tennessee House voted to designate the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” ignoring an Attorney General’s opinion that it would be patently unconstitutional.
  • Both Arkansas and Arizona enacted laws requiring doctors to tell patients they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, an assertion without scientific merit.
  • The Mississippi House approved a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from the requirement of possessing a bus driver’s license—nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act.”

With bills like these, it’s easy to dismiss the right wing as just plain crazy. Remember the trans-vaginal ultrasound legislation? Know about the Texas bill to allow the open carrying of handguns, even in Houston and Dallas? For that matter, what about the new Kansas law that bars people from using TANF funds to get a tattoo, go to a swimming pool, or take a cruise? A cruise, really? I grew up on what was then just called “welfare” so trust me when I say the monthly support is barely enough money for basic necessities, let alone a cruise.

So, yes, it can seem crazy. But it’s not. It’s strategic.

The right wing advances different legislation for different reasons. Sometimes bills are intended to excite their political base, even if the law is not expected to pass; sometimes the measures have little substance or might be struck down in court, but they provide wedge issues that force progressives and moderates to defend a difficult political argument; and sometimes their legislation flatly enriches powerful conservatives or weakens progressive constituencies.

The measures described above are principally designed to motivate the right’s political base. Why shouldn’t they pass ridiculous bills if it makes their activists happy? At this moment in political history, the right wing hardly ever gets blamed or feels any electoral downside for supporting ideological garbage.

Kansas and Oklahoma recently enacted laws to ban a procedure for second trimester abortions. These are almost certainly unconstitutional, but the effort mimics the so-called “partial birth abortion” tactic, making progressives defend a medical procedure that the right wing paints as “gruesome” and “horrific.” This is an example of political experimentation, looking for new electoral wedge issues.

Just this year, Wisconsin enacted so-called “Right-to-Work” legislation, the Illinois governor began an effort to create “Right-to-Work” zones, Nevada partially eliminated the prevailing wage, and South Dakota lowered the minimum wage for minors. Over the past few years, numerous states have attacked unionized teachers, made it harder for progressive-leaning constituencies to vote, and cut taxes for the rich. It’s this kind of legislation that galvanizes their base and weakens ours—and gives the Koch brothers exactly what they’re paying for.

That’s the right wing’s business model. Usually it works, but occasionally it doesn’t. They got beaten up when they pushed a bill to encourage Indiana businesses to discriminate against LGBT residents. But hundreds of other times they’ve passed equally bad bills that haven’t raised an eyebrow. In February, for example, Arkansas enacted SB 202, which forbids cities and counties from enforcing general anti-discrimination ordinances—creating essentially the same result as the Indiana law that brought nationwide condemnation.

The right wing goal is not short term change; it’s a long term strategy. They’re trying to manufacture situations where, for progressives, there’s no way to win. Conservatives may pass their law or not, but either way they have defined the debate. They’ve studied the policy, done the polling, and taught their advocates what to say. Whether a bill passes or fails, they are pushing the envelope and building for the future.

It is time to stop letting the right wing dictate the agenda. Progressives need to fight back with our own proactive strategy.

First, we need to organize around a compelling policy agenda that energizes our base, pulls swing voters our way, and wedges the right wing. Our candidates should drive a set of robust policies in multiple states and localities that, together, illustrates an overall theme and demonstrates that we’re on the voters’ side and conservatives are not. That’s the focus of the Public Leadership Institute.

Second, we need to train both progressive officeholders and candidates at every level how to use our proactive agenda to triumph in the 2016 elections. This requires far more than getting them to memorize policy facts. They need to understand message frames and debating techniques, learn how to use their voices and nonverbal cues to persuade, and be able to communicate overarching progressive values. Much of this is laid out in the Progressive Majority Action’s book, Voicing Our Values: A message guide for candidates and lawmakers.

Third, we need to recruit the very strongest progressive candidates to contest every key legislative, county and municipal race. And we need to funnel contributions to the races that count most. This is the fundamental mission of Progressive Majority.

Quite frankly, progressives are having a very bad year and we’re going to continue to lose as long as we remain on the defensive. Playing offense is far more fun—and far more effective. Let's go put some points on the scoreboard.


A Golden Opportunity to Strengthen the “Progressive” Brand

“Progressive” is our nation’s most popular political term, but at the same time, most Americans don’t really know what it means. If we play our cards right, the Democratic presidential primary season can help us define our ideology. This is an exercise in branding.

While we wish that voters considered their electoral choices with a spirit of idealism and a dedication to the common good, that’s not a realistic expectation. Partisan politics requires some elements of marketing. We need swing voters to have a positive general impression about progressives because they will never really understand the details behind progressive policy.

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The Indiana law promoting discrimination is a new low

Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) signed SB 101 into law, the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently, Pence was surprised at the nationwide outcry against the law and he’s adopted a defensive crouch. 

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill,” Pence asserts. “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would’ve vetoed it.”

But of course it’s about discrimination! That’s the point of the law. It invites individuals and corporations to violate state and local laws, regulations and rules and claim, as a legal defense in court, that they were following their own religious principles.

On its face, the Indiana law doesn’t mention sexuality. But the measure is aimed at the LGBT community and not others because the state can’t override federal law that protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. While other states are filling the gap between federal and state law, passing LGBT Fairness Acts to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, Indiana is going in the opposite direction.

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Promote “fair markets,” not “free markets”

Last week’s column bemoaned the fact that average Americans believe unquestioningly in “free markets,” even though there are no such things. Indeed, every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations. Subsidies, loopholes, grants, contracts, trade policy, labor law and inconsistent enforcement all warp markets. To say the words “free markets” is to perpetuate a dangerous right-wing myth.

So promote “fair markets,” not free markets. Can this expression help persuade voters? Yes it can. For example, voters already prefer “fair trade” to “free trade.”

More important, every time we say free markets we hurt the progressive cause. Persuadable voters keep two somewhat-contradictory economic concepts in their minds. The words free markets evoke the conservative belief that governments should stay out of the economic sphere and let markets work things out. The phrase fair markets, in contrast, reminds voters of their firm belief that our economic system is rigged to favor the rich and powerful, and that governments should do something about it. We must reinforce the progressive concept, not conservative one.

Beyond pure messaging, “fair markets” should mean something substantive. It should reflect a philosophy. Progressives need to promote worldviews, not just words.

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There's no such thing as "free" markets

Last week, when the Federal Communications Commission voted for net neutrality and changed the way the Internet is policed, conservatives fell back on their favorite myth. The right wing media raged that it’s “a blow to the free market system.…

But there’s no such thing as “free” markets.

Somehow this neoclassical, theoretical concept plays a central role in contemporary politics. When we progressives try to explain our economic policies, we face the fundamental challenge that typical American voters believe in “free” markets. And why shouldn’t they? They hear no real arguments to the contrary.

But the truth is, the free market is a fairy tale, a fraud, a rhetorical device. American markets are not, and never were, free of government influence. Just open up the business page of any major newspaper and see for yourself. One company seeks a government subsidy. Another is forced to disclose finances by the SEC. The Fed changes the prime rate, affecting everyone’s ability to borrow. The Administration proposes a treaty that would reward some industries over others. The government is always involved, always biasing market results, always nudging and twisting and bumping around the supposedly invisible hand.

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The Right Wing Surge in the States

In state legislatures, 2015 is the right wing’s best chance to enact their most extreme legislation. The right now controls more state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s.

This opportunity is fleeting. Because of increased voter turnout in presidential years, Democrats will probably erase at least some of the Republican state legislative gains next year. In addition, GOP political leaders will want to paste a more moderate face on their party's brand in 2016. So this is their year, they think.

The right has made clear that its partisans have three overarching state legislative priorities, in this order: (1) weaken labor unions, (2) suppress voting by progressive-leaning citizens, and (3) satisfy their religious extremists.

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The Science of Political Persuasion - Part Two

Last week’s column explained the science behind political stubbornness. Essentially, our brains are hard-wired to engage in “confirmation bias.” Further, our opponents get a blast of dopamine and feel pleasure after they rebut our arguments—even when that rebuttal is based on irrationality and falsehood. By the end of last week’s column it may have seemed like political persuasion is virtually impossible.

And yes, it is extremely difficult to change the minds of partisans. There are conservatives, for example, who are unpersuadable no matter how many scientists testify to the truth of global warming, no matter how much evidence shows that the death penalty doesn’t deter murder, no matter the incontestability that voter fraud at the polls is too rare to worry about.

In fact, politics isn’t really about changing our opponents’ minds. It’s about mobilizing our own base while persuading that slice of voters who are persuadable.


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The Science of Political Persuasion - Part One

Why won’t people listen? They’re so irrational! You make a sensible, even irrefutable political argument and they’re still not persuaded.

Cognitive science tells us that persuasion is hard. When deciding whether to agree with you, people rely on emotion and ingrained beliefs far more than facts. Indeed, if your listeners hold beliefs intensely, you’re probably wasting your time no matter how many facts you can muster.

There is science behind that stubbornness. Let us explore why people’s brains react this way and use the information to restructure our arguments to make them more effective.

Confirmation bias

Generally, political science (like economics) is based on the assumption that people mostly act rationally, that their political opinions and the way they vote are based on self-interest. But that’s unrealistic.


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The State of the States and Localities

Due to the ghastly 2014 elections, more state legislators are Republican and the GOP controls more state legislative bodies than at any time since the 1920s.

Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Statehouse Republicans won’t want to appear too extreme in 2016, both for the presidential election and for their own reelections. Therefore, we must expect a deluge of ultra-conservative legislation in 2015; we’ll start to see it within weeks.

The business wing of the conservative movement will push for long-term structural changes—measures that make it easier for right wingers to win future elections, or policies that tilt the system to benefit the rich even more. And these changes are hard for progressives to undo. They include: bills to weaken the political influence of key progressive allies like labor unions, trial lawyers, and public school teachers; measures making it harder for people to vote, like voter ID and rolling back early voting; and bills to cut taxes on rich individuals and corporations, starving governments for revenue so that, in Grover Norquist’s words, right wingers can shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

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