Facts Just Don’t Matter to Some People

Years ago when I started my professional life as a newspaper journalist, I believed sincerely that when people consumed a daily diet of facts along with their morning coffee, they were inclined to make better civic-minded decisions. Now some three decades later, I’m no longer a reporter covering a beat, and I suspect that my youth may have been misspent.

Writing this week in The Wall Street Journal, columnist Carl Bialik noted that voters “have strong opinions about policy issues shaping the presidential campaign, from immigration to Social Security.” But for many of them, their understanding of the facts supporting their views "can be tenuous." He pointed to studies that repeatedly demonstrate that Americans vastly overestimate the percentage of citizens in the country who are foreign-born by a factor of more than two. Worse, they overestimate the percentage of those who are living here in the shadows as undocumented residents by a factor of six or seven. If those voters have bad facts, it’s nearly impossible for them to reach rational and reasonable conclusions about immigration policies.

Even if these voters have the right facts, however, it may not make a difference. Political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley found just that to be the case. In a paper presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, the two scholars tested whether giving the public accurate information changed their attitudes toward immigration policies. Sadly it did not. “On average, then, providing correct information does not change attitudes toward immigration,” they wrote.

To give another example: Large numbers of Americans tell politicians they want foreign aid cut. But when pressed to disclose how much the nation should spend abroad, they cite figures that The Christian Science Monitor estimated at 10 times what the nation now spends.

There’s one way to explain such discrepancies: Facts just don’t matter to some people. And to be sure, that’s why unscrupulous politicians engage in the Big Lie. As a propaganda technique, repeating a falsehood over and over emboldens those inclined to believe it to heartily support anyone who tells them what they already know to be true—even if it is not.

Witness, for example, the despicable spectacle of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigning for votes among conservative white voters in New Hampshire by talking tough about black people on welfare. “I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” Gingrich said last week.

That widely reported comment prompted broad criticism of Gingrich’s easy lapse into racial stereotyping. The fact that he said it isn’t debatable. He did say it. But this week he told a black man at a political rally that he didn’t.

As reported by my Think Progress colleagues Alex Seitz-Wald and Travis Waldron, Yvan Lamothe, a 59-year-old former New Hampshire state employee and small-business owner, seized the opportunity at a town hall event Sunday to tell Gingrich that he was offended by the comments. “I didn’t say that,” Gingrich declared, presumably with a straight face. Rather, Gingrich said he was the one who should be offended. “I just want to say that frankly this makes me very irritated. The Democratic National Committee took totally out of context half of the sentence, OK?”

Gingrich’s denial brings to mind the old routine by comedian Richard Pryor, when a cheating spouse is caught in the act by his wife. “Who you gonna believe?” the man says in all earnestness. “Me or your lying eyes?”

Unfortunately, far too many Americans seem willing to trust politicians who tell them something completely contrary to what they see, hear, and ought to know to be the factual opposite. And it seems there’s an ample supply of political demagogues willing to tell them just what they want to hear.

Just look at Rick Santorum saying at a New Hampshire campaign event last week, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Then, when criticized for sounding like a bigot, he claimed he never said it.

Or look at some conservative activists that insist on demonizing Medicaid, arguing that it’s a government giveaway to poor people. In fact, it’s very much a middle-class program as well.

For me, as someone who fondly remembers being a young and idealistic journalist, the idea that some Americans will cling to erroneous beliefs in the face of demonstrated facts is a bitter brew to swallow. The only thing worse is my late-life awareness that there are those who know better but still serve up lies for their own political purposes.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.