How Do We Bridge the Reality Gap?

It is impossible to imagine an argument attempting to explain the results of the 2016 presidential election that isn’t completely overshadowed by what Steve Benen calls the “reality gap.” He begins by pointing to a Economist/YouGov poll that asked: “Do you think that the proportion of persons without insurance has increased or decreased over the past five years?”

As a factual matter, we know with certainty that the answer is “decreased,” but overall, this detail is not widely known. The results found 37% of the public knows that the uninsured rate has gone down, while 31% believe it’s gone up, and 32% believe it’s stayed the same.

But look closer and predictable partisan divisions emerge: a plurality of Democrats believe, accurately, that more Americans have health insurance, while a plurality of Republicans believe the opposite. A clear majority (61%) of voters who backed Hillary Clinton answered the question correctly, while an even larger majority (74%) of voters who backed Donald Trump got it wrong.

That’s just one example. The reality gap is much bigger than that.

We talked a few weeks ago about a national Public Policy Polling survey that found Trump voters believing all sorts of wrong things, on issues ranging from unemployment (Trump voters believe it went up under Obama, which is the opposite of the truth), to the stock market (Trump voters believe it went down under Obama, which is the opposite of the truth), to the popular vote (Trump voters believe it went in the Republican’s favor, which is the opposite of the truth).

As I noted yesterday, Alana Semuels found the same thing while personally interviewing Trump supporters in Elkhart, Indiana.

Andi Ermes, 39, offered a number of reasons for disliking Obama. She said Obama didn’t attend the Army-Navy football game, even though other presidents had. Obama has actually attended more Army-Navy games than George H.W. Bush. She said that he had taken too many vacations. He has taken fewer vacation days than George W. Bush. She also said that he refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. While it is true that Obama did not wear a flag on his lapel at points during the 2007 campaign, it was back on his suit by 2008. Ermes told me the news sources she consumes most are Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and a local conservative radio show hosted by Casey Hendrickson.

Here is how Benen articulated the problem with that:

While the debate continues as to why the “reality gap” persists, the broader national conversation about these issues isn’t likely to be constructive until partisans have some shared reality upon which to build.

In other words, as long as people like Ermes live in a world built on lies perpetuated by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Casey Hendrickson, it is impossible to have a constructive conversation. Perhaps you’ve experienced that on a personal level and recognize that it is also a barrier to having a broader national conversation.

That describes the “structural problem” President Obama talked about in a Vice documentary titled, “A House Divided.” He suggested that our political problems won’t be addressed until we figure out how to overcome this reality gap. Or as I wrote:

Great Democratic candidates with a powerful message are not likely to break through that divide. LET ME BE CLEAR: that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try. It’s just that the best messenger with the best message won’t be enough until we find a way to tackle the structural problem.

Especially during his second term, President Obama tried using various forms of social media to bridge this gap. In addition to having a very active presence on Facebook and twitter, he did everything from giving weekly video addresses to appearing on popular podcasts to engaging in youtube and reddit interviews. In an effort to engage people who still use traditional media, the President travelled all over the country (including places like Elkhart, Indiana) and sat down for interviews with local media at every stop along the way. We can now conclude that none of that was very successful in bridging the reality gap.

This raises an important question that should be asked of the candidates who are running to be the next chair of the DNC. But the truth is, I don’t expect that anyone has great answers to it right now.  So the floor is open for suggestions.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.