Obama and Beyond: A Muse Machine Preview

Polling booths at a primary school in Manchester, New Hampshire

You shall know the truth and it shall make you. . . well, confused, sometimes.
 While the official good-government orthodoxy holds that we should always stuff ourselves with every factoid and data-point imaginable, thereby becoming more informed voters, there’s also a case to be made, in politics and the rest of life, for not exposing ourselves to every passing perspective, especially in a time when perspectives are thicker than mosquitoes in a Texas summer. 
That paradox will be defended in coming posts as we enter The Age of Obama, but meanwhile, here’s an info-pack I wish I’d not encountered just before heading to the polls:
In the early 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” For example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on important issues. 

In 1960, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate.” Shifts in election outcomes, they concluded, were largely attributable to defections from long-standing partisan loyalties by relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology. A recent replication of their work found that things haven’t changed much.

I’d go one gloomy step further than the professors: I don’t think it’s just “relatively unsophisticated” and lesser-educated voters who are cast in fast-drying cement on most of their opinions. People in general, from Harvard faculty to Pipefitters Local 356, have a remarkable capacity to screen out new information that might cause uncomfortable dissonance, or call into question decades of comfort-zone thinking. 

 That’s why so many of the cable TV shoutfests are good for little besides rallying the already-converted:  Despite all the carefully rehearsed outrage and sulfuric insults, the shows tend to be boring, largely because almost nobody ever comes to a surprising new conclusion– unless it’s a conclusion that the people he already hated are even worse than he thought they were. 

 That’s why you rarely hear anyone say, “You know, I was just wrong about that.”*  That’s why accumulations of facts and evidence have so little motive power with so many, who are instead persuaded by class, race, or gender prejudice, or by the belief that some hazily conceived entitlement or “right” is about to be taken away or limited, which raises the rich question of just what we can and should expect from government and society.   Reason may build a raft filled with facts, but the raft may sit becalmed until blown here or there by hatred, jealousy, or fear. In fact–here’s a surprising new conclusion for me–if you don’t have a strong dose of hate or fear affecting your political calculations,  it can actually be harder  to make a decision.

So, as I join the voting throngs this morning, I’ll be looking for people with this slogan on their t-shirts:

“Relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation”

*Coming up on future posts: Muse Machine’s “I Was Wrong Day,” wherein the author will give reasons to doubt his omniscience and invite similar candor from others.



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