Fourteen-year-old Eggert Stolten’s mother was an ardent Nazi. She did not try to stop her son from listening to the BBC and Radio Switzerland, but instead maintained a withering commentary on the statistics given by the British for the distances the Allies had supposedly advanced, and the prisoners they had captured. “It’s lies, all lies!” said Frau Stolten. “Our numbers are the right ones!”
Armageddon: The Battle for Germany
The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he directs the public mind through “managed news”; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind . . .The most striking feature of the current right-wing obsession with “skewed polls” is that it combines two of modern conservatism’s most pronounced tendencies: A complete rejection of empirical reality, and a deep conviction that said reality is in fact a conspiratorial plot by the enemies of America (a.k.a. the liberals) to poison public opinion—to win through deception what they cannot achieve openly.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Memories of the right's insistence that all was going well with the bloody occupation of Iraq are hard to avoid—likewise the manufactured “debate” over the causes and consequences of global climate change, the imaginary role of ACORN and the Community Reinvestment Act in the subprime mortgage meltdown, and just about every other instance in which conservative ideology has had to come face to face with the cold, hard facts of life.
In each case, the kneejerk conservative response to inconvenient (and unfriendly) truths has been to mimic Adam Savage’s line from Mythbusters: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Except Adam was being ironic. They are not.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
I suppose we should be thankful that the stakes in this year’s psycho-conservative break with reality are relatively trivial. We are not, after all, talking about the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and/or innocent civilians (although the coming war with Iran might put that one to the test), or the collapse of the global financial system, or even the fate of the earth.
It’s not even all THAT important politically—unless, of course, you happen to subscribe to the popular conservative theory that an unchained second-term Obama will try to annex the U.S. to Russia, or something.
But, what the skewed polls fantasy lacks in significance it more than makes up for with its pure mind-bending insanity, to the point where the Unskewed Polls guy could actually publish the following sentence ...
The Fox News poll released today continues the trend of skewed polls that over-sample Democratic voters to produce results favorable for the president.... and not have his head explode—at least not yet. (O et tu, Roger Ailes? Et tu??)
At this point, it’s a little surprising that conservatives aren’t insisting that babies really do grow under turnip plants. But maybe that’s because Todd Akin hasn’t weighed in the subject yet.
In the old days I would have spent hours Googling for obscure quotes from the dark days of 2005, or 2006, or 2008—hell, the entire eight years of George II’s mad reign—to compile an evidentiary list of conservative paranoid fantasies, beginning with Stanley Kurtz's (Mistuh Kurtz, he dumb) musings on the liberal plot to subvert Operation Iraq Liberation, continuing through the great East Anglia global hockey stick conspiracy, and maybe even taking a dive down the infinite rabbit hole of birtherism—with Sheriff Joe as the March Hare and Donald Trump as the Mad Hairpiece—to prove my point. But Google isn’t what it used to be, and neither are my powers of concentration.
Well, okay, just one—for old time’s sake:
“We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who [sic] is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”Note that I’m not quoting some garden variety Internet schizophrenic here, but that lovable curmudgeon Grandpa John McCain—the pragmatic voice of sensible centrist Republicanism, or whatever such gibberish Mark Halperin or Chris Matthews were peddling at the time. Personally, I’m not sure whether McNasty was letting his inner conservative freak flag fly, or just took a few too many hits of Matanuska Thunderfuck from Sarah Palin’s bong. Either way, it marked the point where a paranoid conspiracy theory became the official, as opposed to the unofficial, doctrine of the entire 2008 GOP campaign.
Sen. John McCain, R-Get Off My Lawn!
Third Presidential Debate
October 15, 2008
We are, of course, running ahead of schedule this year—no doubt reflecting the astonishing resiliency of the Kenyan usurper’s political standing in the face of the complete collapse of the U.S. economy, the death of employment, and the impending Greecification (Grecoization?) of America’s public finances. From the conservative point of view, this is literally inexplicable—an Obama lead simply cannot be reconciled with what “the entire world” knows to be true. The same goes for polls showing an upsurge in Democratic self-identification. The idea that conservatives are not a natural majority, poised to retake a country wrongfully stolen from them, is completely unendurable.
What cannot be endured must be denied. And at the rate things are going, by mid-October the dwindling band of GOP true believers will be reduced to babbling about Mitt’s secret miracle weapons—the ones that will destroy London (well, Chicago, anyway) and save the day.
The allusion, of course, is completely deliberate (The Godwin police: “OK, billmon, we’ve got you surrounded, come out of that metaphor with your hands up!”). There simply is no getting around the fact that the mentality of the modern grassroots conservative movement is in almost all particulars the spitting image of a 20th century totalitarian political party—an “epistemically closed” loop of self-reference and self-delusion. In other words: a cult.
The upshot is that one of America’s two main political parties has managed to turn itself into the proverbial insane asylum run by the inmates. And, unless the doctors want a quick trip to the electroshock table, they damned well better tell the patients that they, too, can see the same pink elephants (wink) tapdancing on the walls:
John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster and consultant to GOP candidates, told the conservative National Review last week that Democrats are lobbying media pollsters "to weight their surveys to emulate the 2008 Democrat-heavy models."I mean, you know the right is really going off the deep end when Erick Erickson (!!!) is the one trying, kinda sorta, to pose as the voice of sweet reason:
"The intended effect is to suppress Republican turnout through media polling bias," McLaughlin said.
But let’s be honest — pollsters have reputations to worry about and they aren’t going to intentionally try to screw up.If you check out the comments to his post, you’ll see that Erick hasn't been making too much headway with his argument—although at least his readers aren’t accusing him of selling his soul to the Communist News Network (well, not many of them, anyway).
To be sure, paranoid obsessions may just be an occupational hazard in politics—a product of caring way too much about far too little. Why, just a few weeks ago I was spinning my own media conspiracy theory, based on a mistaken reading of some Washington Post/ABC News poll results. It’s part of the addiction. (You know you’re really hooked when you find yourself checking pollster.com and the Real Clear Politics poll averages at least hourly.)
But for most sane (or at least semi-sane) people, there comes a point where you realize you’ve lost the thread and have to back up a bit—and maybe enter rehab. But epistemic cults have no such corrective mechanisms. They never go in reverse, never question their own assumptions, and most of all never ever admit error. Their belief systems are too fragile. Break the gestalt, even in one place, and the entire edifice may come crashing down. Which may explain why totalitarian cults that actually achieve unchallenged state power usually end up astonishing the world not just with their barbarity, but with the sheer zaniness of their thinking. They can’t stop themselves from taking their obsessions to the ultimate extreme.
Obviously, our conservative cultists are a long way from having that kind of power (thank the stars). But that also means the threat posed by external reality—the story they cannot dictate—is more dire, and the need to rationalize and deny is even more urgent, just as it was for the party faithful in a certain Central European country in late 1944 and early 1945.
But when the walls are crashing down, or are about to, denial can quickly morph into an explanation for defeat—a way of repairing a broken gestalt, even though one of the key pieces (in this case, the belief in a triumphant conservative electoral majority) can’t be salvaged.
Ultimately, this is where the skewed polls myth is likely to end: in yet another closed loop of illogic, this one denying the legitimacy of an Obama reelection victory. In fact, it’s almost there already, as the following comments—lifted verbatim from a right-wing blog –- demonstrate:
First wingnut: Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think these polls are setting up the electorate to expect an Obama win so that when the votes are counted they will claim the election was stolen. Then Occupy/SEIU/minorities will riot, a la "Arab Spring". The administration will declare Marshall [sic] law until the DOJ investigates the results and we won't have an outcome to the election for months and months.I won’t say you couldn’t make this shit up, since obviously you could. But who would bother, when the real thing is so much better?
Second wingnut: I hate to say this, but I think you're onto something here. Obama is an arrogant egomaniac who will not, and cannot go down in defeat. It's too important for him to change this great country of ours, in his eyes it's something that needs to be done, at all cost! There's a storm coming.....be prepared!
Third wingnut: i AGREE bARRY WON'T SURRENDER POWER EASILY
What’s particularly impressive is the perfect circularity of it: The polls show Obama is winning, ergo Obama and the liberal pollsters must be trying to steal the election. Once you accept the starting premise—conservatives are the “real” majority, which the skewed polls conceal—the conclusion is damned near bullet proof. (Why else would the pollsters lie?)
I doubt that any of this comes as a particular surprise to serious students of homo conservatus. Certainly it shouldn’t. We’ve known for some time that the species is mutating with astonishing rapidity, like the virus in The Adromeda Strain. As the political environment grows more hostile, and reality becomes ever harder to repress, the radicalization process is likely to continue. It could even accelerate—to the point where we look back on the skewed polls fantasy as just an amusing right-wing eccentricity.
Well, actually it is just an amusing right-wing eccentricity—and we’re not even looking backwards yet. But, if the history of radicalized political cults is any guide, the paranoid conservative fantasies of the future may not be funny, not one little bit.
We also may not have to wait that long to see how ugly the wing nuts can get. Unlike the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, or climate change—big, complicated stories that took a long time to unfold (or are still unfolding)—the election is less than 40 days away. And while reality in Iraq, or on Wall Street, or in the Arctic Ocean, could and can be massaged, misinterpreted and/or denied almost ad infinitum, we’re going to have a definitive answer to the skewed polls “debate” on the night of Nov. 6.
If their mythical conservative majority vanishes, and Obama does in fact win, the skewed poll devotees are going to have exactly two choices: accept the fact that they were wrong, and settle in for another four years of bitching and moaning, or embrace the “stolen election” hypothesis in all its sheer lunacy.
I’m not a psychiatrist, and I don’t even play one on television, but I believe any clinician will tell you that in a psychotic break from reality the moment of crisis comes when the patient can no longer fend off the truth, and the fantasy collapses. At this point, they may lash out violently, at themselves or others, or slide into a catatonic state—anything to avoid the pain of the unbearable.
If it comes to that, I personally hope the wing nuts go for the catatonic solution. It would make November and December—not to mention the second four years of the Obama administration—a LOT more peaceful and productive. But I’m not holding my breath.