Five years ago Julian Sanchez did us the favor of defining a pattern among conservatives that he called “epistemic closure.”
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile…If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely…And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
The entire basis for the existence of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is the belief that the “mainstream media” cannot be trusted to tell the truth because they are all “liberals.” This fed something that we as human beings already tend to do anyway – reject information that doesn’t conform to our already-established beliefs. It feels good to not have to grapple with the cognitive dissonance that comes with consideration of conflicting facts. But the end result is that it kills curiosity and we wallow in ignorance.
The disastrous results of epistemic closure for conservatives have been on display for some time now. It explains how they continue to deny the science of climate change, assume that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is “cooking the books” on unemployment data and led to a whole movement during the 2012 election to unskew the polls. But for everyone from Murdoch to GOP leaders, it worked to keep the base angry and engaged.
And then…it got out of control. Take a look at the results of Frank Lunz’s focus group with Trump supporters.
“They’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,’” Luntz said. “And (Trump) personifies it: Each sees in him what they want for the country. They want him to fix what makes them mad, and they believe he will.”
It is Trump’s ability to reflect back to voters their most fervent wishes for the nation, Luntz said, that makes the political outsider so dangerous to the rest of the 16 other GOP 2016 hopefuls. The main reason for this, Luntz found, was what he termed a willingness of Trump supporters to live in “an alternative universe” in which any attempt by the media to point out inconsistencies in Trump’s record or position was seen as a politically motivated conspiracy.
“When the media challenges the veracity of his statements, you take his side,” Luntz asked of his focus group. Only one person sat quietly, her hands in her lap, as 28 other arms shot up in agreement.
For these participants, the Republican establishment (and perhaps even Fox News itself) have now joined the liberal New York Times in peddling a politically motivated conspiracy when they challenge Donald Trump. That should come as no surprise when these same people have been told for years that they can pick and chose their facts based on how they make you feel. Stephen Colbert was positively prophetic when he coined the term “truthiness.” And now it’s all coming back to haunt the GOP.