Epistemic Closure FTL

11.09.12

Why the Right Couldn't See the Truth

Michael Ott on the danger of epistemic closure in politics (and everywhere else)

I am honored to have won the chance to write this guest blog. I have been a rabid, left- leaning, political junkie my entire life. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, so I spent the majority of the first 18 years of my life literally “inside the Beltway.” When I wasn't inside the Beltway, I was spending my summers on the Jersey Shore arguing politics with one of my best friends, a traditionalist, Catholic conservative who idolized (and still idolizes) his great uncle, Russell Kirk. He argued from the right; I argued from the left.

We rarely met in the middle, but we were and remain great friends and respectful of one another's opinions. We never took anything personally and only called each other out when we felt that the other was not being intellectually honest. That is one of the many reasons I am honored to have won the opportunity to blog here.

I often disagree with David's opinions, but I always trust that they are honestly given.

I am now 31, and in my daily life I am a bankruptcy attorney with a background in mathematics, so naturally I am a big fan of news and numbers. In making my election prediction, I relied entirely upon the hard work and analysis of Nate Silver, Sam Wang, and Drew Linzer, assigning the toss-up in Florida to Obama, based on my reading of the polling averages at Pollster, RealClearPolitics, and TalkingPointsMemo, clarified by the demographic musings of Jon Chait over at New York Magazine, and pushed by the brilliant reporting of Sasha Issenberg at Slate about Obama's ground game.

That last point is what I would like to discuss here. The contrast between the campaigns this year was stark and ironic. On the one hand, we have President Obama, who the right wing continues to constantly portray as a hapless, ivory-tower intellectual with no practical executive experience or ability. Yet in less than a year, he created the greatest political infrastructure this country has ever known. Over the last four years, he has overseen the continued growth and development of that infrastructure using cutting edge marketing analytics to drive an even more sophisticated voter turnout/ground game operation, which, given the high bar set in 2008, is almost unbelievable. Yes, a lot of the credit goes to David Axelrod and David Plouffe, but one of the greatest marks of a successful executive is hiring the right advisers and staff.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, was clearly a very successful executive at Bain and the Salt Lake City Olympics, and claimed, in particular, to be turnaround expert and entrepreneur. Yet, he failed to build any real infrastructure, farmed out his voter turnout to the RNC, and ended up turning out fewer voters than McCain in 2008. The long and competitive Republican primary is obviously no defense. If anything, Obama's extensive infrastructure and campaign organization were created because of his long and competitive primary with Hillary, not despite it. The voter identification and turnout methods used by Governor Romney’s campaign and the RNC (as discussed in brilliant detail by Mr. Issenberg) are basically several generations old and show a complete lack of understanding of the capacity of modern analytics. Governor Romney's greatest success was with fundraising. This makes perfect sense given Governor Romney's background in private equity fund formation. However, for a self-identified “turnaround expert,” the Romney campaign, the RNC, and the right wing super-PACs were horribly inefficient with the funds they raised—often spending far more than the Obama campaign for staff, advertising, materials, etc.

The right wing has always considered Obama feckless and incompetent. But looking at their campaigns and without any information about their backgrounds, who would you say is the feckless and incompetent executive? The right wing's trope does not pass the smell test. It's obviously wrong. It was obviously wrong immediately after the 2008 election; it’s even more obviously wrong today. If an extremely competent and successful American businessman like Romney could not build a campaign infrastructure anywhere near as modern and efficient as that created by Obama, how could Obama qualify as a feckless and incompetent executive?

But the right wing simply did not see it. They did not believe it. They ignored it. One thing I have learned as an attorney is that if you ignore critical facts in a case, you lose. You cannot cherry-pick facts that are favorable to your argument and ignore the rest. Ignoring them constitutes a failure to address them at all. It means not developing the strongest defense or counterattack. It means leaving yourself unprepared and vulnerable. The right wing ignored the clear evidence that Obama was actually a highly competent politician and skilled executive. They created this mosaic picture of Obama—teleprompters, hammers and sickles, and all—and are shocked that the majority of the country did not see the same Obama they did.

The same is true with regard to the polling data. The demographic trends were there for the right wing to see. Jon Chait pointed them out months ago. The right wing ignored them, favoring their beliefs about the shape of the electorate over hard, socioeconomic data. They only read polls that favored their worldview and attacked all others as biased.

I believe in the importance of differing opinions in this country. While I am a proud progressive, I value the insight and restraining impulse of conservatism and believe our country is better off when opposing viewpoints work together in constructive dialogue. However, one thing my best friend taught me at an early age is that you cannot have a constructive dialogue when you cannot even agree on the basic facts and data. And that was before the Internet! We have an incredible public infrastructure in this country for the development and compilation of socioeconomic data. The Census Bureau does a fantastic job measuring the vital statistics of our country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve do a fantastic job measuring and analyzing the economy and releasing that data publicly. If you have never used FRED, you are missing out! Yet one party refuses to consider the data, or worse, simply chooses to reject it, as demonstrated when Jack Welsh—of all people—claimed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was fabricating employment numbers to help President Obama's reelection efforts. Or when many still claim that the massive increase in the monetary base after the downturn in 2008 caused widespread inflation. Or when many refuse to consider all of the polls in a systematic way, but instead decide to cherry-pick the data that best supports their preformed beliefs.

Facts are powerful. Hard numbers are powerful. In entering this contest, I put my faith in hard data and cold, comprehensive, objective, and systematic data analysis. Hopefully we can all start agreeing on what the numbers say and start discussing our values and policies in a constructive, intellectually honest way.

Michael Ott, an attorney, lives in Oak Park, Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @michael_ott.