An aversion to ‘too many facts’

Republican pollster Ed Rogers recently reflected on “the psychology of GOP activists,” most notably in the context of the presidential nominating contest. (via DougJ)

Our team wants someone authentic, creative, fresh, bold and likeable. And we don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information. In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. Cain’s 9-9-9 is a bumper sticker; Romney’s economic plan is an essay. Perry’s rationale for giving the children of undocumented workers in-state college tuition rates is an essay. No hand-outs for illegal aliens is an effective bumper sticker.

It may seem rather insulting to rank-and-file Republican voters to hear a prominent GOP pollster say they have an aversion to “facts” and “information,” but that only makes Rogers’ candor that much more refreshing. His assessment may be mildly impolite, but it seems fair given what we’ve seen in Republican politics of late.

My larger concern, though, isn’t limited to Republican voters’ discomfort with evidence. The real problem, it seems to me, is that these voters are represented by Republican policymakers who also “don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”

I continue to believe the radicalization of the Republican Party is the most important political development in recent decades, but it’s accompanied by a related trend: GOP officials who simply don’t take public policy seriously.

With Rogers’ assessment in mind, it’s tempting to think Republican lawmakers in Congress, for example, simply dumb things down for public consumption. They avoid depth of thought because these officials know their supporters “don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”

But are they dumbing things down or are the shallow sound-bites a reflection of their own limited understanding of contemporary debates?

It would seem this dynamic contributes to the “wonk gap” — which has been evident for quite some time — leaving us with conservative “experts” who don’t even fully appreciate the details of policy debates in their own fields.

I’m reminded of something Jon Chait wrote in January, after National Review published a defense of a health care policy argument that was, on its face, ridiculous.

Most people are not policy wonks. We rely on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn’t even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added at the time the wonk gap goes well beyond health care: “Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there’s a gap…. [T]o meet the right’s standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.”

The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions. Much of this, I suspect, is the result of an entire party that doesn’t “have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”