Is the Left Better at Facing Inconvenient Truths?

Long-time reader Ed Whitney wrote me an email that was too intriguing to keep as a private communication. Ed graciously agreed to turn his thoughts into a guest blog post. What follows was written by him:

Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, begins with a sobering parallel between the age of the invention of the printing press and the age of the internet. When printing decreased the cost of books by a factor of three hundred, the people of Europe were exposed to an information explosion, one of whose consequences was the proliferation of writings which were isolated along religious and national lines. The cost of “too much information” is selective engagement with it, picking out what we want to read and ignoring the rest. Greater sectarianism, accelerated by increasing information, led to a series of bloody religious wars in a Europe fragmented by people who chose different kinds of information as a focus of their attention.

Selective attention to information, Silver suggests, leads to calamitous failures of prediction. We focus on the signals which give us an world narrative we want to believe, not one that tells us what the world around us is really doing.

Because Nate Silver himself became a news item in the 2012 election, and because he had become prominent in other recent elections, the responses to his work present us with an opportunity to compare and contrast how different segments of society deal with information which tells them things which they would rather not hear. The seduction of selective engagement with information may be a universal phenomenon requiring all of us to beware of our susceptibility to it. But we have a chance to look at two distinct patterns of response to inconvenient truth: the Republicans in 2012 and the Democrats in 2010. In the midyear election, Silver forecast a Republican tidal wave increasing their power in both houses of Congress; in the presidential election just finished, he foretold a successful reelection bid by the incumbent.

There have been a number of posts and links on the RBC demonstrating how many Republicans responded to Silver’s models showing a high probability of an Obama victory; conservatives howled with disbelief and impugned Silver’s motives and his very personhood, insisting that Silver was only trying to help a hopeless cause and thwart an inevitable Romney triumph.

Now comes the opportunity to compare and contrast with 2010. Right here at the RBC, Jonathan Zasloff noted that Nate Silver forecast a very good year for the GOP, and focused on a race which was still within the Democrats’ reach: the Colorado Senate Race, which Michael Bennett did in fact win. Rather than howl in anger at data which foretold a grim election night for the blue team, he focused on races in which the polling data were close enough to motivate get out the vote efforts in those states and districts.

Similarly, at Mother Jones, David Roberts used the word “shellacked” to characterize what he saw as a “fact” about the upcoming midterm elections, and Kevin Drum also accepted that 2010 looked bleak for Democrats. The unwelcome predictions of Nate Silver and other pollsters were accepted as valid, as arrived at by analysis of data and not though self-hatred, nihilism, or any of a number of psychobabble constructs which might have been leveled at them by a partisan who just did not want to believe that the Tea Party was going to have reason to celebrate in November. Josh Marshall similarly accepted the Silver estimate of a 10% chance that Tom Periello would manage to win the race which he ended up losing.

Mitt Romney went on record attributing his party’s losses to the incumbent’s pandering to the moochers in the electorate. Democrats meanwhile are actively discussing what led to their successes largely in terms of policy differences which were more enlightened than Team Red was trying to propose.

So the question for contemplation is this: what if the different level of 2012 success of the two parties is due to one side being better able than the other to resist the Siren call of what it wants to hear rather than being due to differences in policies offered up during the campaign? We hear that truth has a liberal bias; however, it is possible that a liberal ability to control self-deception confers a survival advantage on liberalism and its causes.

Second question: What should we do in order to discipline our habits of placement of attention toward all valid information, welcome or not? Should we start to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News? I think not. Just because something is good to hear, does not make it valid, true enough. But just because something grates on our ears, does not make it valid, either. In both cases, our visceral responses to information is not a measure of its worthiness of our attention. Another criterion of what should command our attention is needed. The floor is open for discussion.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

84 thoughts on “Is the Left Better at Facing Inconvenient Truths?”

  1. i think it would probably be unwise for progressives to be to self-congratulatory about our ability to control self-deception. i think avoidance of hubris demands that we pay at least some attention to the right-wing noise machine if only to understand where our antagonists are coming from. in some ways our program resembles a religious one in that we seem to feel that we can bring about the conversion of our opponents through reasoning and better and better framing of our assertions. as noble as that goal might be i believe that our best chances for success will come from a process of patience and stubbornness combined into something similar to erosion.

    i don’t know if this was exactly what mr. humphreys was looking for in response to his questions but it represents my first take on them.

    1. I don’t know if this was exactly what Mr. Humphreys was looking for in response to his questions but it represents my first take on them.

      Navarro: The post is by Ed Whitney.

    2. The way to avoid self-deception is being willing to listen to a number of different voices. I don’t think you have to listen to Limbaugh and Hannity to hear different voices, but if you are willing to listen to women, african-americans, hispanics, basically anyone speaking in good faith, you’re OK.

      I think the real waste of time in listening to Fox News is not that you will hear something you don’t want to, it’s that they are not speaking in good faith, and it is THAT which automatically disqualifies them from the conversation.

  2. Conservatives delude themselves into believing they are winning. Liberals delude themselves into believing they are losing. Statisticians of even greater stature than Nate Silver have long been telling Liberals for a long time now that the idea of the white working class abandoning the Democratic Party since 1964 is largely a myth.

  3. Nobody is immune, not even the lofty left. The author’s examples of lefties who faced the music were selected out of the noise as well. If one looks, one can select a similar collection of right-leaning pundits who took the polls seriously in 2012 and lefties who denied the data in 2010. As I recall the 2010 shellacking came as quite a surprise to many who were hoping for a different outcome and unbelieving that tea party “crazies” would be so successful.

    A look at reactions to closer election results is informative as well — much of the left is still butt-hurt over the 2000 election, blaming the Supreme Court for a “stolen election” when the inconvenient truth is that they lost a close race and the endless recounts were nothing more than futile desperation, and blaming Nader voters when the inconvenient truth is that more than twice as many Florida Democrats voted for Bush than Nader.

    Faced with an abundance of information, we can either try to take advantage of the availability of unfamiliar viewpoints to gain insight and maybe learn something, or we can seek out only those viewpoints we agree with and ignore or dispute the rest without seriously considering them on the merits. It seems to be human nature to choose the latter.

    1. Nobody is immune, not even the lofty left. The author’s examples of lefties who faced the music were selected out of the noise as well. If one looks, one can select a similar collection of right-leaning pundits who took the polls seriously in 2012 and lefties who denied the data in 2010.

      Please do. I’d like to see the results.

      1. Yes, this is a typical Rove-esque arrogantly asserted false equivalence comment: Put up or shut up Freeman.

        1. I’ll throw you a bone, Roger.

          Daily Kos quoting Simon Rosenburg:

          I am struck that in most national polls the Republican number is that very same 46% they got in 2006 and 2008. Meaning that despite all that has gone on the Republicans have not improved their standing with the American public at all since their wipeout elections in 2006 and 2008. Kos goes on to say “Read the entire article. He makes good arguments for why Dems can close very strong. The Republicans failed to close the deal and now Democrats are coming back home.” That was Wed Oct 06, 2010 at 09:31 AM PDT.

      2. No problem, John, since you asked politely instead of replying with some arrogant “put up or shut up” demand like I’ve seen elsewhere. 😉

        Michael Brendan Dougherty and Daniel Larison at The American Conservative were predicting an Obama win and took George Will and Michael Barone to task for wildly optimistic predictions in favor of Romney.

        I’ve had comments with too many links in them end up in moderation purgatory never to be seen again, so I’m not posting all the links, but I got the these quotes from the first page of google hits to the following query: election polls

        By Michael Brendan Dougherty • November 2, 2012, 2:21 PM

        It looks like Obama is going to get his second term.

        By Daniel Larison • October 28, 2012, 11:41 PM

        The election is just a little over nine days away. It still seems more likely than not that Romney will lose the election.

        By Daniel Larison • October 30, 2012, 5:05 PM

        Romney would have to win basically every close swing state to win.

        By Daniel Larison • November 5, 2012, 10:07 AM

        For what little it’s worth, my final prediction for the presidential election remains the same as the one I provided last week.

        While I’m on the subject, I don’t know what possessed George Will and Michael Barone to make predictions that are so wildly optimistic in favor of Romney.
        Making what appear to be wildly inaccurate predictions will tend to make people discount everything else that Will and Barone say about the outcome.

        That’s all the homework I have time for tonight, but if you’re wanting more: it’s the internet — you can find anything out there if you look for it! Cheers!

        1. From what I have read, the American Conservative is conservative in a fairly traditional American sense, while the contemporary right wing is not at all conservative. It is closer by far to an American individualist version of right wing European nihilism after WWI. They are not the same although there is some cross over rhetorically at the margins.

          Some conservatives in the first sense have sought to make common cause with right wing nihilists- George Will for example – but I think there is a world of difference between Russell Kirk and John Adams and Ayn Rand and Karl Rove, to pick some examples.

    2. Endless recounts? You mean the single statewide recount that would have settled the matter once and for all that was stopped by the Supreme Court at the request of the Bush campaign?

      In a close election like that, any one of 9 (or 17 or whatever) things can have made the difference. Because it’s so close with the cumulative effect, *each* is a but for cause of the result. Gore lost because in Duval County, they didn’t count ‘overvotes’ even where the intent of the voter was perfectly clear. (Voters told they were to vote each page voted Gore on the first page, and wrote in Gore on the second page. Not counted by machines. But the legal standard isn’t whether a ballot is machine countable, but whether the intent of the voter can be ascertained). People in Palm County confused by the butterfly ballot. People stricken from the rolls in the erroneous ‘belief’ that they’d been convicted of felonies in other states. People who thought there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Gore and Bush. Supreme Court stopping the count, which was being supervised by a single judge (who would be able to resolve questions of different standards being applied) and then days later complaining that there wasn’t time to do it right. Supreme Court changing the standard for making an equal protection claim on a one time only basis, Etc, etc. No one complicit in any of these bases gets to say ‘well. it’s not our fault, there was all that other stuff.’ Because, really, each and every one of these things had to happen for Bush to prevail.

  4. Reading this post immediately made me think of this from Brad DeLong where he asserts that “Rupert Murdoch is not in the business of providing news, or advancing right-wing causes. Rupert Murdoch is in the business of selling eyeballs…” to satisfy a large market. I don’t know if the left or the right is more or less self-deceptive (how would one measure?), but there does seem to be a large appetite for it on the right.

  5. I do think that the left is better at controlling self-deception than the right. I’m not sure that this confers a survival advantage. Berserker rage has its advantages.

  6. I think the left is better at concentrating on areas where it’s better at controlling self-deception than the right, and self-deceived about the existence of other areas where the trend is opposite. Not an indictment, focusing attention on areas where we do well is an almost universal human trait, lacking only in people suffering from clinical depression. (Who, research says, are actually remarkably objective in their self-assessments; It’s the happy people who are delusional!)

    Long term secular trends in party affiliation make avoiding self-deception in the area of odds of political success an easy thing for Democrats, winners are under no temptation to deceive themselves that they’re really losing. I say that as a libertarian/conservative: Yes, you really are winning. Terrible for the nation, but still true.

    A list of areas where the left is deceiving itself might include subject such as, the effects of their programs on improving the condition of minorities, the safety of nuclear power, the feasibility of most forms of “renewable” energy, how safe GMOs are for consumption…

    Subjects liberals will, not accidentally, mostly avoid when assessing their commitment to reality.

    1. A list of areas where the left is deceiving itself might include subject such as, the effects of their programs on improving the condition of minorities, the safety of nuclear power, the feasibility of most forms of “renewable” energy, how safe GMOs are for consumption…

      An odd combination.

      The GMO thing is an outlier, a non-issue, shared by natural food freaks of all political persuasions and no one else. Nuclear power and the feasibility of some renewable energy are areas of disagreement on the left. (Anti-nuclear also maps to anti-GMO across the political spectrum.) None of them are central issues on the left. In the crunchy zone, yes.

      Now, “[our] programs on improving the condition of minorities”? Unlike the rest, that is at the heart of the left. Perhaps we delude ourselves about the possibilities of programs cut off in progress or never fully implemented, a nostalgia for the future that never was. We aren’t satisfied with where we are now. I feel pretty reality-based, myself.

    2. part of what i was getting at with my comment above is that it is hard to tell what one’s own blind spots are because if one knew them they wouldn’t be blind spots. your list is interesting. if you would replace the word “minorities” with the words “the poor” i think we might be able to have a discussion about it. i also think energy policy is an area where neither party gets it right. i tend to favor policies and programs that help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, particularly coal, but in the aftermath of fukishima i don’t think the public is ready to talk about greatly increasing nuclear power plant construction even if the proposals were for plants with contemporary designs that would be inherently safer than the fukishima plant and i tend to think that cuts across party lines. as for gmos, i personally haven’t seen enough evidence to warrant their restriction and where i live people who do favor the restriction or labeling of gmo foods are as likely to be conservative republicans as they are liberal democrats but they might be related to the fact that i live in texas which is a predominately republican neighborhood.

      to summarize, your point is well taken and while your list is suggestive it is hardly conclusive.

    3. “…. the feasibility of most forms of “renewable” energy …”
      We are imagining that Paraguay produces far more hydroelectricity than it consumes, that Denmark gets 20% of its energy and a third of its electricity from wind, that German electricity supply – with its rapidly increasing proportion of wind and solar – is far more reliable than that that of the USA, that Romney lost Iowa partly because of his contemptuous opposition to its breadwinner wind farms?

      Of course what real liberals mean by “renewable energy” is by definition romantic and precommercial technologies like power kites, wave energy, ocean thermal, hot-rock geothermal, or synfuels from algae. None of these can possibly work. Columbus can never sail to India, it’s too far.

      1. “Columbus can never sail to India, it’s too far.”

        I agree with much of your sentiment, but this is a GHASTLY example.

        (a) Columbus DIDN’T get to India.

        (b) This argument, used against him, was CORRECT. Given the (correct) size estimates of the world, his ships did not have enough provisions to cross the combined Atlantic+Pacific. Columbus had some bizarre theory that the world was pear shaped rather than sphere-shaped, and he was going to go around the narrow part.


        Regarding Brett’s list, a big difference, I think, is that there is much less Leninist discipline on the left (at least right now). And let’s not pretend otherwise. Jerry Brown and the rest of the “official” left did nothing to help the GMO-labelling proposition — they left it up in the air, for people to do as they wished. Compare with Rubio’s pathetic “I’m not an anti-science idiot but I’m willing to pretend to be one on TV” response to the question about the age of the earth a few days ago.

        The political environment, and the cluster of supporters behind the Republican Party these days is simply unwilling to entertain dissenting voices. Susan Collins says so. David Frum says so. The behavior of Mitt Romney (Mitt Romney of Romneycare!) says so. There is nothing comparable on the Dem side.

        1. The argument of the Salamanca professors against Columbus, which I recycle, was indeed correct on the best available knowledge. (My understanding is that Columbus´ error was simply getting the size of the Earth wrong by a factor of 3 or so, so that sailing to Asia was just about feasible). But Ferdinand and Isabella were still right to let him go. The map was empty. It was a low-cost, high-risk, high-payoff bit of venture statecraft; and it paid off. It´s still the model for research funding and Silicon Valley startups.

          1. Yes, but that is not what you were arguing for, James.

            The argument: “We don’t know what is out there, there’s a lot of ocean between Europe and India, let’s explore it” is a good one.
            But you (in your justification of Columbus) are making the very different argument: “I’d really like to be able to get to India by going West, so I will just ignore what science says and believe that the world has a different shape”.
            THAT is why I am saying this is a ghastly argument.

            Or, to put it differently: investment in say bio-diesel, sure. Might pay off, we don’t know enough yet about all the variables to be sure.
            Investment in building an ever larger corn ethanol industry, given all we know about the energy balances and side effects — moronic, and it ain’t gonna become less moronic at scale. You can’t justify corn ethanol by saying, “yeah, well, maybe thermodynamics is wrong; after all Columbus found something unexpected on the way to India”.

          2. Would corn-ethanol benefit from co-generation?
            Much of the energy input to it is for the distillation, I think.
            If that was accomplished via solar heating, the energy balance would shift.

          3. And people would still get hungry because of feeding food to vehicles.

            Ethanol makes little sense unless it can be produced from waste, such as logging slash. The energy loss isn’t just in the distillation, but also in the fertilizer. In practice, ethanol is best regarded as a way of “laundering” fossil fuels.

          4. So far as I know the only people who are enthusiastic about grain or sugar alcohol as fuel are agribusiness lobbyists; grain alcohol costs as much gasoline as it replaces, and sugar alcohol only works because of manual labor and carbon-wasteful processing. The people promoting ethanol as a fuel in a serious way are hoping for developments in the efficient, large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol – logging waste as Brett says, or the stalks and husks from grain harvesting.

    4. Add another to the list of points Mr. Bellmore refuses to discuss: the Price-Anderson Act.

      Additionally, the reason very few new nuclear power plants have been started in the last 15 years is not overbearing librul regulation (the NRC is more than happy to process any permits submitted), but the plain fact that Wall Street won’t fund them. We could have a rational discussion about why Wall Street considers nuclear power uneconomic (as long as we acknowledge upfront that the NRC spent a lot of time streamlining the licensing process in the 1990s and so-called “NIMBYism” is no longer a factor), but the plain fact is that Wall Street does. It ain’t libruls putting the brakes on but the Republican Party’s very own favorite banksters.


      PS Mr. Bellmore: now that California has finished counting all the votes have you updated your little chart yet?

  7. I’m not sure it’s a function of liberalism as such… Late ’70s liberalism was, as I recall, just as hidebound in its orthodoxies as the GOP is today (and was just as stunned when it kept losing elections). Just as Reagan added the important caveat “At this moment in time,” government was the problem etc.: At this present time, the Democrats seem to be better at avoiding self-deception.

    But there’s nothing automatic or inevitable about that, any more than the inevitability of a permanent Republican majority.

  8. I think the evidence through history and across many nations is that economic fundamentals swamp all other considerations. Thus the apparent effectiveness of reactionary political tools varies inversely with the health of the economy.

    To put it bluntly, plutocrats confident in their ability to protect what they already have actively work to damage their own economies. Then they deploy the maker/taker mythology, in all its varied forms. Most of the rubes never figure it out.

    1. Wrong wrong wrong. Nate Silver’s intro point is precisely about this.

      The issue is not that money has at all times, and in all places, runs the show.

      The issue is that IDEOLOGY, at most times and in most places, runs the show. It is ideology that becomes hardened, fossilized, and attracting ever greater zealots, until there is a collision with reality.
      We saw a version of this in the European wars of religion. We saw different versions of it in responses to colonial encroachment, whether ghost-dancers, Xhosa cattle-killing, or the Taiping rebellion.
      (By ideology I mean an insistence that things are the way they are because of the sayings of some prophet, the writings of some book, and that if reality appears otherwise, well, reality is just wrong.)

      What has happened in the US (and much of Europe) is that finance capitalism and a bundle of related issues has become a mainstream ideology, in a way that was not the case between say, the first world war up till the fall of the USSR. But there have been different (non-money-based) ideologies before, and there will be different ideologies again.

      1. I have to admit that I was thinking mainly of modern (semi)democracies over the last 100 years. But I disagree about this:

        “The issue is that IDEOLOGY, at most times and in most places, runs the show. It is ideology that becomes hardened, fossilized, and attracting ever greater zealots, until there is a collision with reality.”

        I don’t think (that is, are there any counterexamples?) that you can achieve any meaningful amount of political power in a modern wealthy country without large amounts of money. Maybe you think that ideology attracts money, but IMHO, it’s the other way around. Money gets to choose.

        I should emphasize that I don’t think that plutocrats are always successful. Here in the US they’re divided, and the faction that backs the Republicans (ATTM) seems to be on its heels. But only ten years ago it was ascendent.

        All this is a long winded way of saying that I don’t think that liberal truth-telling has much to offer in the way combatting the power of, as you say, finance capitalism, in the long run. All you have to do is remember how George W. Bush got to power, ignoring the election business. Explicit corporatist crony capitalism deeply wedded to the government was just fine with about half the electorate, and seems to have not much less support today. Should the Dems suffer bad timing on a business cycle, the grifter style plutocrats will be right back in business.

        1. “I don’t think (that is, are there any counterexamples?) that you can achieve any meaningful amount of political power in a modern wealthy country without large amounts of money.”

          Iran? Russia in 1917 (depends on what you call modern)? Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy?

          But you are missing the point. You need the money to achieve results, insofar as money is a co-ordination mechanism, and to achieve anything political requires co-ordinating large numbers of people. But that is different from saying that money is the POINT of gaining political power. Even today there are countries where getting (personally) rich is the point of going into politics, whereas the US is not like that: becoming a GOP politician is the expression of an ideological belief, it is not engaged in as a rational choice of the best way to get rich.

          You believe (or write as though you believe) that the plutocracy will be in power forever, that we have reached the end of history. I don’t believe this; I believe that, like all previous ideologies, the gatekeepers of the ideology will attract ever more dogmatic adherents until the gap between reality and the ideology is too large, and the system collapses. The question is — does the collapse occur more or less quietly, or accompanied by massive violence? History shows us examples of both situations. One advantage of a plutocracy-like ideology (as opposed to theology based ideologies) is that the number of people TRULY invested in it is small; there is faith, yes, but the faith is ultimately tied to some sort of real-world claim “you will get rich” or “we will get rich” or suchlike. This is easier to walk away from than “god will reward you in the next life, and will reward you more the nuttier you are” Compare the collapse on communism in this regard.
          So I could see the DIRECT arrow in the heart of the plutocratic ideology as being something like a new Great Depression (ie something larger than what we just went through, coupled with a shrunken social safety net). On the other hand, while that DIRECT result is not a war, we all know how the Great Depression played out, allowing for nuttier ideologies to have their day of violence in the sun.

          1. I’m quite certain that the current system will keep going on, until it doesn’t…

            We seem to differ, essentially, on the strength of the bond between “money” and “power”. Reading you carefully, I suspect you assign more potential power to religious ideologies than I do. Even there, I think the more extreme AND influential examples achieve it, at least in part, through quite generous funding from… plutocrats.

            Consider “Red Plenty” and then look at the definition of “plutocracy”: a class that exercises power by virtue of its wealth.

            It then depends on the meaning of the word “wealth”. If it is only a gross measure of for instance dollars “owned”, then I think you are right. If “wealth” is more amorphous, bleeding into power, a bit, then I’m right.

          2. “You need the money to achieve results, insofar as money is a co-ordination mechanism, and to achieve anything political requires co-ordinating large numbers of people.”

            And when governments realized that, by setting up central banks, they could print enough money to finance things like world wars.

  9. The current Democratic coalition in the USA is a loose grouping of ethnic minorities, feminists, gays, kids, greens, and intellectuals, plus what´s left of the old unionised working class. You wonder what holds it together apart from its atavistic conservative opponents, determined to piss them all off. Opposing discrimination is a common thread, but it´s hardly a wide-ranging guide to policy. It´s not surprising if the intellectuals are permanently uneasy, especially after Marxism collapsed as a credible unifying ideology. Everything they come up with has to be sold within the coalition, which is why gun control has been shelved. Nothing concentrates the mind so well as being under continuous threat. Incidentally, this explains the complete realism of the Afro-American and Latino votes.

  10. I posit a totally different paradigm than “liberal” or “conservative.” Instead, what you are seeing is the difference between the “true believer” and the “pragmatist.” Whoever inhabits the party where pragmatism holds true believers in check is the one that is going to adopt a more reality based approach to both policies and polls.

    In the 70s and 80s I also recall a sense of determined disbelief among “true believer” liberals that their party had fallen so low. It took a lot of wandering through the wilderness to realize that, yes, these “other” people really and truly did disagree with them, so now what? So I think there is a sense that a reality based path forward with accompanying policies was hard won and needs to be guarded (the unhappy correlating result is that Ds are perhaps too cautious with power when they manage to get it — we have definitely seen that).

    And that, I think, is what we are really seeing in Republican circles: the true believer’s inability to grasp the depth of disagreement and the world view of others, because the moderates by and large have either been silenced or left.

    1. You and BrianH both make the point of comparison to 70s/80s liberals. As a young man myself, I’ve repeatedly heard this point and I understand the significance of three consecutive Presidential victories, but I can’t summon my imagination to envision it with any depth. Would anyone be willing to point to examples or (literary) sources to demonstrate this phenomenon?

      1. I will say that most of my references are experience related, but I will give you an example. In 1988 when Dukakis was running for president I was working in an office alongside an incredibly brilliant lawyer who had recently graduated from Harvard. Her “issue” was apartheid and her goal was divestiture. Let me say, I agreed with her politically, but when she told me that apartheid would be the most important issue in the upcoming election, I tried to inject a little reality: “But N, you were living in Cambridge, so I can see how it might be really important there, but I just moved from [a southern state] . . .” and that’s as far as I got. She said: “you can’t possibly believe that state is more representative of the country than Cambridge?”

        She was my friend, so I just said, “I guess we’ll have to see.” Reading news profiles of people in various states who profess shock at Obama’s reelection reminds me of her. These people believe that their world view is truly more representative of the world at large, and certainly self-evidently much better than the alternatives.

        At a minimum, it’s the “self-evidently” part that they are wrong about. It’s like there is no legitimate basis for disagreement with them, and therefore, they should not have to explain themselves.

        More broadly, I think that in the 70s/80s, Dems still held with the notion that coded and not so coded racial appeals north of the Mason Dixon line would not have the force that they actually did — that it would be possible to keep their traditional hold on working class whites without selling out civil rights for African-Americans and then women. They were wrong.

      2. Read “The Greening of America” of Charles Reich (1971) and marvel that “serious people” (the same sort of crowd that make up today’s TV talking heads and write today’s editorials) took this nonsense seriously.
        (And no, it is not a book about ecology; if it were it would not be worthy of mockery.)

        I’m probably upsetting quite a few people with this suggestion, but that’s my point. We are talking REALISM here guys — it simply didn’t play out the way Reich claimed, and while you can pick out isolated nuggets here and there and say “he was right, that did happen” (probably best done by looking at women’s rights and gay rights) even in those cases it didn’t really happen the way he said it would.

  11. What about turnout of down ticket races?
    Would high level acceptance of the 2012 Pres polling numbers by Republican media types depress the turnout of Senate / Congressional races?
    If that were the case, I see a strong incentive to publicly predict victory. No sense in making a bad situation worse.

    The question is how they behaved in their closed-door strategy meetings. Did they really believe the 300+ predictions of Rove/Morris?

    1. Did they all believe it? I doubt it.

      Did some of the more prominent GOPers believe it? You bet they did. Romney truly believed he had a path to victory even without Ohio. He got that reality denial someplace.

  12. While I’m generally sympathetic the premise presented, I’d hesitate caution. The presidential race was decided by a mere 2.8 percentage points, and Obama garnerd only 50.6% of the votes. Sure, the EC margin was much larger, but that was in part the product of tightly-focused resource allocation by the Obama campaign. Plus, Romney was a lousy candidate with a lousy campaign and still won 47% of the vote nationally. All of this makes me very uneasy about drawing broad conclusions about policy preferences or survival advantages. There’s a lot of truth in Barbara’s “pragmatist/true believer” framing, not least the observation that the Democratic Party found itself exactly where the Republicans are right now fairly recently. In other words, things can change.

    1. This argument can easily be inverted. Obama was in a weak position, asking to be reelected with a struggling economy, high unemployment, ongoing bloodshed in central Asia, a big deficit, a wildly enthusiastic opposition empowered by complete control of the House that had stymied him in Congress, with the most popular cable news network saying whatever was most convenient against him and almost a half-billion of the richest people in the country’s money deployed to beat him. Plus other problems. A win by 3% doesn’t look so bad when you consider how tough the odds looked going in (and, yes, Mitt Romney probably underperformed, though every other person who seriously contended for the nomination was an even worse prospect).

      1. I’m not saying some odds weren’t overcome, but I’d caution attributing the win to some competitive advantage that can be expected in the future. I’m also not arguing that Obama and the D Senate should take the foot off the gas in terms of policy. I’m only cautioning against a triumphalism that in all last likelihood will evaporate in 2014.

    2. The game is for electoral votes. Why would any sophisticated electioneer do anything other than tightly allocate their resources? People read more into the popular vote than is appropriate, I think. A race for the popular vote would have looked completely different – and would likely have produced much larger margins for the democrats.

        1. Your point looked an awful lot like an argument that the results of the popular voted recommended caution, because it represents the actual margin of victory. But it doesn’t. I’m not sure what would.

  13. I think 2004 for the Democrats is the more apt comparison to 2012 for the Republicans. I remember looking at the poll numbers in the week prior to that election and talking myself into believing that they were under-representing the Ds and not accounting for their greater enthusiasm. I also remember being absolutely dumbfounded the day after the election that the man who had been foisted on the country four years earlier actually got elected for real this time. So my schadenfreude since Election Day 2012 has been tempered by sympathy of a sort.

    1. I remember hoping that polls were skewed in 2004, and hearing people who made arguments that they were, usually based on failure to sample cell phones, but I was not dumbfounded when I found out that they were accurate. I also noticed that, as with Romney this year, Kerry never led a poll of Ohio and that was likely going to be the difference for him.

      1. But the difference in 2004, and to a lesser degree in 2008, was that Kerry (and McCain) actually led in the polls at several points prior to the election. Kerry and Bush swapped the lead several times over the month of October. Mitt Romney never lead in the polls once over the course of ten months leading up to the election of 2012. It was excusable, though still maybe fantasy, for both Kerry and McCain to believe that they might have a shot at winning the election, and that the polls might be skewed against them somehow, but for Romney to have believed the same thing was simply willful ignorance and self delusion.

        Here is a helpful set of graphs comparing 2004, 2008 and 2012 polling averages and final electoral vote totals:

  14. global warming. inconvenient to all –both left and right– its surely going to be a pain to deal with. but its just science, accepting it is what those who believe in evidence do. there is really no need for other examples.

  15. This kind of self-congratulation makes me crazy. At this very limited present historical moment, in the United States, the left is CURRENTLY better able to face inconvenient truths than the right. To extrapolate that to some sort of general ‘leftish’ tendency is not only hubristic, but it shows an astonishingly large lack of historical knowledge.

    Obvious counterexamples: the left and communism see not only 1930s a la Duranty but also the 60s and 70s leftists who professed unhappiness about communist authoritarianism while still strongly believing that it was doing better economically, the left and the French Terror, the left and Cambodia, the left and nuclear power, and at the moment the left and GMOs. (contra above, GMO stupidity pretty much does not exist on the right).

    1. I would like evidence for the assertion that somehow the American Left (as in actual politicians, not the SLA) favored anything about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodian in ’70s.

    2. Which “French Terror” was that – the one in 1792? I try to recall the names of the leaders of the American ‘left’ at the time, but come up short. Jefferson? Madison? Jay? Or do you mean members of the American ‘left’ in the 1970s who thought that by and large, Robespierre and Danton had the right idea? Again: names? evidence? practical consequences to their political actions?

      If you mean that some people in the American ‘left’ (which of course for most of the world, including developed countries, even G8 countries, tends to be about where the center-right is in those countries) had some sympathy for the pronouncements of the French leftists of May 1968 – well, they have have done, but that movement was clearly dead politically about two weeks after it started, though its afterglow of self-satisfied sympathy lasted decades in France. (“Of course I was on the barricades in 68 – or would have been, but for …”)

      1. The original post posits some sort of internal characteristic about ‘the left’. That goes beyond the US, and that goes beyond the last 15 years. The left *in the US in most current period* is definitely better at facing inconvenient truths. That doesn’t mean there is something special about ‘the left’ in general or whatever. So to the extent that you’re trying to say that the very current US-only left is better than the very current US-only right, you are correct. The idea that it is some sort of general characteristic of the left doesn’t bear even the most cursory examination. My counterexamples are perfectly good for showing that.

        1. Your ‘obvious’ counter-examples lack in obviousness. Seriously expect me to believe that the left was nodding in favor of the Khmer Rouge in 1977?

          Show me.

          1. Just because you have trouble understanding, doesn’t make obvious examples unobvious. I notice that you pointedly aren’t responding to my other example: the left and communism see not only 1930s a la Duranty but also the 60s and 70s leftists who professed unhappiness about communist authoritarianism while still strongly believing that it was doing better economically. Do you think that was a great example of leftists being great at facing inconvenient truths?

          2. As for the Cambodia claim, in 1977 Chomsky was downplaying the Khmer Rouge’s crimes and trying to excuse them by blaming the US. (Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman The Nation, June 25, 1977).

          3. Ah, yes, the noted elected Democratic politician Noam Chomsky. Or did you mean the Noam Chomsky whose national broadcasts set the line all elected Democrats must follow? Or perhaps it was the noted Democratic fundraiser Noam Chomsky ($0 in reportable donations to any candidate for federal office, says

            Our actual national government trained and equipped right-wing death squads in Central America and around the world, and cheered on many more. We had a couple of UN ambassadors who’d cheerfully have strangled puppies on live television if they suspected those puppies of Communistic tendencies, and any number of elected Republicans who breathe fire and proclaim their insanity at regular intervals. And your recourse is to denounce Noam Chomsky, who arguably might be an idol of the people who reject the Democratic party and all mainstream politics?

            Have you considering treating your interlocutors with some minimal respect? With some intellectual honesty?

          4. I picked the most egregious example – of the left and Cambodia.
            You can back that up, or withdraw it. Your choice.

          5. As for blaming the U.S. for Cambodia’s problems – I’ll bring up Nixon’s secret bombing campaign.
            The US was no saint in the region.

            And the US Left is not the party of Chomsky.
            The US Right does seem like the party of John Birch, however.

      2. He means the French Terror that threw Tom Paine in jail and scheduled his execution. Because there’s no surer sign of sympathy with the American Left.

        In the immortal words of the philosopher B. Bunny: Geez, what a maroon.

    3. what about all the 60s and 70s republicans such as nixon, ford, or reagan who were unhappy with communist authoritarianism who thought it was doing better economically. that wasn’t just an artifact of the left at that time it was the conventional wisdom up until the mid-80s. and even months before it all collapsed there were plenty of conservatives who thought communism was going to last for the foreseeable future.

  16. Before setting up 538, Nate Silver was posting his stuff as Poblano on the Daily Kos. In other words, for liberals, he’s one of us. Moreover, by 2010, he had already had a successful track record predicting good news for liberals in 2008. It’s easier for people to accept bad news when it’s delivered by someone on their side.

    If there had been no 538 in 2008, and if a conservative but similarly qualified Nate Silver had set up 538 in 2010, would his results have been accepted by liberals?

    1. He would not similarly have been tribally embraced, but his success with numbers might well have been taken seriously, in a way the Right largely didn’t with Silver.

  17. I was going to save this for around New Year’s, but here is my list of “Conservatives Worth Reading,” * ** which comes entirely from suggestions from trusted commenters here,
    for your convenience,
    and in no particular order:

    Conservatives Worth Reading:

    Bruce Bartlett
    Lincoln Allison
    Conor Friedersdorf,
    Julian Sanchez
    Radley Balko
    the “Unqualified Offerings” gang
    Pat Buchanan in [when he’s not being a hater…]

    * I could make a list of Not Worth Reading, but that would not be nice.

    ** It also has some libbies. Not sure if getting called conservative will anger them.

    Anyone good missing?

    1. I’d suggest Reihan Salam, although his work at the National Review mostly aggregates and synthesizes other bloggers

      1. You’re right, I was just slapping my head over the same guy! Can’t believe I left him off — he’s the only suggestion that would have come from me.

        I can’t speak to his originality, but then again, I’m not sure my standard is that high. Who’s really original anyway? I just ask for arguments that make sense, even if I don’t like them, and a minimum of snark.

    2. Would add Andrew Bacevich to NCS’s list; he has a level head, avoids polemical overkill, and has an air of gravitas backed up by knowledge of the limits of military power.

  18. Warren/mobius, you appear to be changing the topic rather dramatically. The original post does not limit itself to Americans, nor politicians, nor Democrats, nor liberals, nor the current period. It seems to posit a long term predisposition of the left. The examples I gave, especially the you’d love to ignore the left’s atrocious take on communism example, all speak to the OP definition. Not some other definition that you want to drastically narrow. Your exchange itself suggest that those on the left are not specially inoculated against desperately trying to ignore inconvenient facts.

    1. Sebastian, you are free to attempt to characterize some concept you have of “the left” that spans the globe, exists across more than two centuries, and has no actual representation within the American political system – not among the politicians, nor among any identifiable and influential faction of the people who vote for them. And you can then take your time-hopping, America-irrelevant version of “the left” and say things about it so as to attempt to distract from the apparent disparity between, on the one hand, the actual existing Republican party and its adherents and the other hand the Democratic party and its adherents. But so long as you are concocting irrelevant and sweeping mythical creatures, why limit your imagination? Why not theorize about a galactic version of “the left” that supports inhumane and disgusting acts on the far side of Alpha Centauri?

      Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth, the French Terror has got nothing to do with how people participating in politics in America in the twenty-first century comport themselves. As you surely know.

      1. I realize that reading comprehension might not be your ‘thing’, but I already said “At this very limited present historical moment, in the United States, the left is CURRENTLY better able to face inconvenient truths than the right. But whatever.

    2. mr. h., don’t forget that the conventional wisdom on the soviet union until the late 80s was that it had a state-run economic engine that was likely to swamp the u.s. if we weren’t careful. this wasn’t just the position of the left, this feeling was prevalent on both ends of the political spectrum. when the whole thing collapsed in the period 1989-1990 the conservatives were just as surprised as the liberals.

    3. “The original post does not limit itself to Americans, nor politicians, nor Democrats, nor liberals, nor the current period. It seems to posit a long term predisposition of the left.”

      I’m sorry, where do you get this? The post I read focuses entirely on the current Republican and Democratic parties, except for a remark about liberalism in the second to last paragraph. In which parts of the text do you find these broad generalizations?

  19. Very interesting responses to an open ended question that may not have been all that clear to begin with!

    I am still early into Nate Silver’s book, but he shows many signs of being much more than a clever statistician; he is a thinker of some depth. His very first mention of Shakespearean tragedy suggests that it turns on interpreting signs around us so as to gain an advantage from them. Cicero says, “men may construe things after their fashion/Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” Like Caesar, we interpret reality in terms favorable to our preferences, and this is a condition to which all of us are prey, whatever our political persuasion.

    We all have blind spots, which we can discover under special conditions, such as the experiment where we hold a piece of paper with a black spot a certain distance from our eye while looking at something else; the spot disappears altogether, still there although invisible to us.

    We do not see that we do not see–how can we cope with this basic fact of our condition? A major part of the answer to this involves listening to the perspectives of others whose blind spots may be visible to us, while they see clearly what we are missing. True knowledge is social, not individual and not inside our heads. Ayn Rand may have missed this fundamental aspect of reality, and she has led many others astray.

    Nate Silver adds that we make approximations of the world that are much cruder than we realize. I have seen many posters on this blog attempt to compensate for this tendency by distinguishing many different meanings of “conservatism.” A tendency to purchase certainty at the expense of making crude models of conservatism is often enough seen here, but the forum keeps itself open to more nuanced and complex models of conservatism.

    There is a dynamic that happens at the spiritual level as well. There are all too many forms of Christianity on the extremes of the political spectrum that mainly teach their adherents to be suspicious of others: enemies are everywhere and the President of the United States is a servant of the Antichrist. But authors like C.S. Lewis and other like him taught that we must first and foremost be suspicious of ourselves. A religious spirituality with that orientation will produce a different kind of fruit from the first. Somewhere C.S. Lewis says that he would rather be in the company of people who don’t cheat at cards than people who are earnest about not cheating at cards. The former are likely to be aware of their own sins; the latter are more likely to be aware of the sins of others. Similarly, I am more comfortable with conservatives (like Andrew Bacevich) who are wary of themselves than with liberals who are certain of their assumptions and who shut their ears whenever a conservative speaks.

    Silver, without the religious consciousness, also counsels us to be suspicious of ourselves; if we know ourselves, we will know that we focus on signals that tell us a story we want to hear about the world as we would have it be, rather than how it is. That is the moral basis of his book, the primary signal that needs to be detected before moving onto the details about Bayesian methodology.

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