Going With Paul Ryan: Inexplicable — or Epistemic Closure?

Kevin Drum is baffled by the GOP’s willingness to follow Paul Ryan over a cliff on Medicare.

Really, it’s pretty amazing. Just two years ago, Republicans walloped Democrats in the midterm election, at least partly due to a tsunami of ads accusing them of taking money away from Medicare. And Republicans have been on the receiving end of Medicare attack ads too. So they know perfectly well just how sensitive this issue is and how much damage it can do. And yet, somehow they convinced themselves that Paul Ryan had some kind of magic fairy dust that would make the American public sit up and suddenly say to themselves, “He’s right! We do need to turn Medicare into a voucher!”

I dunno. The entire Republican Party seems to have fallen into some kind of Svengali-like trance, convinced that Paul Ryan, alone among men, can deliver the bracing tonic that will convince voters to do away with program benefits they’ve loved and supported for decades. The self-delusion here is inexplicable.

But we have an explanation! This is exactly what those of us who keep beating on the conservative closed information feedback loop (that phrase is mostly Jonathan Chait’s, by the way) have been on about these past couple of years. Remember, the Julian Sanchez post that got everyone all hepped up about “epistemic closure” (which is just a fancy way of saying it) was about conservative actors — elites, not masses — really believing the (false) stuff that they were saying because they only receive information that supports the myths.

And I think that’s just about right. Remember how the one that Drum is worried about works. Over on Fox News, it’s axiomatic not only that reducing the deficit is necessary to make the economy healthy, but that Americans overwhelmingly support that sort of thing — both propositions, one might note, that have plenty of support outside the conservative information loop. Moreover, it’s also taken as a given that “reduce the deficit” basically means slashing government spending — which is also overwhelmingly popular — while also cutting taxes. Which, again, is overwhelmingly popular. The response on spending that in fact the polling shows that Americans are ambivalent about spending, supporting cuts in the abstract while opposing specific cuts, is either dismissed as so much liberal sophistry, dismissed as liberal polling bias, or perhaps just never even noticed at all.

Not only that, but Ryan and other Republicans have been arguing for years that they are the ones who are really saving Medicare; remember, their claim is that present Medicare is unsustainable and that it’s the Democrats, by opposing reform, who are putting Medicare in jeopardy. Ryan’s proposal, in this world, is simply the only responsible position for those who support Medicare.

Now, most of those beliefs are either nonsense or highly contentious or at least subject to other interpretations which could damage Republicans. But if you watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh and, I strongly suspect, hang out among GOP-aligned wonks, you’re not hearing any of that. You literally might not know about it. Just as you might not realized how unhinged it sounds to talk about 47% of Americans as moochers, or to talk about the president who killed bin Laden as a Islamist sympathizer. Or that most Americans do not think that the main problem with George W. Bush was that he was way too liberal.

And that’s just the information-flow side of it; several of us have also talked about the various perverse incentives around which perpetuate it. But I strongly suspect the information-flow portion of this goes a long, long ways to explaining what Drum finds inexplicable.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.