In this polarized electorate we often hear the word "propaganda" thrown around. Fox News is propaganda for the right, but Fox News came into being to combat the left-leaning propaganda of the mainstream media. And it's always been hard to adjudicate between those claims as one man's propaganda is another man's "fair and balanced."
But in the wake of the recent election many have suggested that something was decisively revealed about the poverty of information coming from places like Fox News and the talk radio of the right. Specifically, it seemed that many Republicans were absolutely convinced that their candidate was going to win the election. Perhaps even in a landslide. Thus, as the results from battleground states rolled in on election night there was collective disbelief and shock among the GOP. Reality was crashing in upon belief.
How did that happen?
For those who were closely following the Presidential polls heading into election night this shock was a bit of a head-scratcher. Anyone who had a clue knew that President Obama was leading when the polls opened and was the odds on favorite to win on election night. True, it was close, battleground leads were only a few percentage points, so it was a very real possibility that Obama would lose. Turnout was going to be key. But no one looking at the data would have doubted that Obama was the favorite.
And yet, as I talked with various Republican friends--before and after the election--they seemed to be living in another world. Had they not been following 538, Pollster, Real Clear Politics, and Intrade (among others)? All these sites were aggregating and averaging the polls--both left and right leaning--and all had Obama favored. All of them. And nothing fancy or skewed or biased or book-cooking was going on. You didn't need to be a quant to figure this out. Anyone could have pulled out a calculator and performed a simple average of the polls and gotten the electoral map 100% correct. The data was there. Available to anyone with a calculator. So why couldn't many on the right see it?
To be clear, I don't mean to say that people shouldn't hope against the data. Or wish the data was wrong. Or look for contrary evidence. We all do this. But when we do this we generally know we are, well, hoping. We know we are crossing our fingers. We know we are the underdog. And underdogs do win.
So I'm not talking about that. What I'm talking about is what some have called epistemic closure. Feeling dogmatic rather than doubtful. Mistaking emotion for information (Exhibit A: Peggy Noonan). Feeling certain rather than hopeful. Failing to realize that you are, in fact, the underdog.
How did it happen to so many on the right? What was the source of the shock?
Some have blamed the blind hatred of Obama, a hatred so hot that it was, well, blinding. Blind to what many Americans were seeing who were looking at both the President and the polls without a filter of rage.
Some have blamed Fox News for systematically deluding its viewers, feeding them red meat rather than facts for four years, particularly during the election season. Because in the end, Fox was found to be biased in 2012 and the mainstream media got it right.
For my part, I can't say for sure what happened. All I know is this: something happened. I saw it close up in personal interactions, both before and after the election. People were living in an alternate reality. And the epistemic shock on election night was real. Not the shock of loss. That's to be expected. I'm talking about an epistemic shock, the shock of experiencing a belief system catastrophically collide with empirical reality.
Because reality wasn't hidden heading into election night. Obama was the favorite and Romney was the underdog. It was there for all to see.
All you needed was a calculator.
(Pictured above: Graph of Intrade odds for Obama winning Ohio from October 9 to November 7. Note that Intrade had odds of Obama winning Ohio the night before the election at just under 70%.)