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The Pundit’s Worst Fear: When Facts Don’t Support the Narrative

All week, anyone who follows the news has been carpet-bombed with punditry informing them that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat was because he supported immigration reform. Yet now, polls on both the right and left are revealing that immigration reform was far down on the list of issues that influenced the election’s outcome. Reporting on a poll conducted by Americans for a Conservative Direction, Politico says, “Only 22 percent of Virginia residents who voted for Cantor’s opponent, Dave Brat, cited immigration as the primary reason for their vote. About 77 percent cited other factors, such as the Republican leader’s focus on national politics instead of local issues.” (Tip O’Niell was, is, and will always be correct.)

I doubt, however, that such polls will change the narrative related to why Cantor lost. That the hubris and national aspirations of Cantor were the likely causes of his defeat, don’t fit nicely into a bigger narrative that works for pundits and analysts. Those are too nuanced and local…and personal, and don’t fit nicely into a national debate over one issue.

Pundits rarely let the facts get in the way of their narrative. To do so would be more than merely admitting they’re wrong — it can be viewed by them (and all of us) as a challenge to their self-worth and understanding of who we are. A couple of months ago, a Hammock Idea Email explored a phenomenon called “the backfire effect,” a term coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler that describes how people can react to evidence that challenges their exisiting beliefs. Rather than convince them they’re wrong, such evidence can actually cause them to dig-in and become even more convinced that the false information is true. Nyhan: “Giving people corrected information is often ineffective with the people whose minds we’d like to change, and in some cases it actually can make the problem worse. It’s much harder to change people’s minds than we might have thought.”

Pundits all need for things to be right or wrong, left or right, good or bad. (Reporters, on the other hand, need to be able to have pundits from both sides to provide them quotes so they can include, “on the other hand” in their stories.)

Nuance is the pundit’s enemy.

I thought about this last night when I ran across a story on WSJ.com (but don’t look yet) that was a day or two old that I had missed.

Let me start off with a poll question:

The U.S. federal budget deficit is?

(A) Increasing
(B) Decreasing
(C) Staying the same

The answer is B. That’s right, B. Due to increased tax revenues and decreased federal spending, through May, U.S. budget deficit is down 30% from from the previous year, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. (The 2014 federal fiscal year started Oct. 1, 2013.) The year-to-date deficit is the smallest since the same period in 2008. Deficits reached a recent peak in 2009 at the end of the recession, and have narrowed since.The month’s budget deficit of $129.97 billion narrowed 6% compared with the prior year’s May shortfall. In April, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the federal deficit would be nearly a third less than the $680 billion shortfall in the prior fiscal year.

Chances are, if before reading that last paragraph, you believed the federal budget deficit is growing, you still do. Right now, you’re forgetting what you read and dismissing it as misinformation produced by the Treasury Department and CBO.

No doubt, Eric Cantor’s loss had more to do with the ability of Brat to portray him as being “part of the problem in DC than being part of the solution.”

All politics are local, and all issues are nuanced, which makes it difficult for us when we want our beliefs to be 100% correct all of the time and the other guy’s to be wrong 100% of the time. Or, at least that’s my narrative and I’m sticking to it.

  • David Shaw

    Thanks for this, Rex. I’ve been trying to avoid political discussions for some time now because facts don’t seem to have any place in them. And I see the world as more nuanced than “right or wrong, left or right, good or bad.” Your post gave me a nice, thoughtful end to the week.