When Prophecy Fails

Hilzoy gets “post of the day” honors for succinctly summarizing what we all wanted to write about The Corner, and by extension the right at large; they’ve come unglued. More to the point, she gets the relevant comparison right, Leon Festinger’s grounbreaking psychology work When Prophecy Fails.

If you’ve never read the book you really should. It’s great insight into the way people react when strongly held beliefs are manifestly proven to have been inaccurate, and how the believer subsequently adds layers to the “story” as opposed to admitting the belief was wrong. In other words, it could have been a case study of NRO. The book examines Marion Keech, who reported getting a warning from aliens from the planet Clarion (this is where “clarion call” comes from) that the “God of Earth” was going to destroy the planet on December 21, 1956. The aliens, however, would come just before the flood to haul true believers away in their spaceships, thus saving them from the devastation. Keech and dozens of others quit their jobs, sold their possessions, gave up their life savings, etc. getting ready for the event and trying to prove their “true believer” credentials in the run up to the flood. However, the aliens, of course, never came. This is where the study of cognitive dissonance comes in. How would these people react when something they believed so fervently was inarguably proven to have been wrong? Simple; Mrs. Keech got another message from the aliens saying that they hadn’t come because God had decided, after watching this merry band of believers naturally, not to flood the Earth after all. Crisis of faith averted.

It’s not much of a stretch to relate this to the right-wing echo chamber. They bleat endlessly a chorus of demonstratably false premises, and when they don’t work out have to find a scapegoat. Thus we get the “liberal media,” RINO’s, and on and on down the list. Their problem isn’t so much that they’re unscrupulous, it’s that (with a few exceptions), they actually believe the nonsense they peddle. And beliefs are hard to change, so you don’t. You layer on excuses and cop outs to rectify reality to your belief. So after years of screaming that tax cuts and only tax cuts could help the economy, and predicting economic doom in the aftermath of the 1993 Clinton tax package, the robust economic growth of the 1990’s is credited to…the 1994 Congressional elections. Or the capital gains tax cuts of the later part of the decade. Nevermind that these make no sense in the real world, the right has to protect their beliefs about fiscal policy.

And this is, basically, what you’re seeing with Barack Obama. Obama’s not really winning for anything he’s said or done. Voters aren’t waiting with rapt anticipation to see his healthcare or climate bills be signed into law, nor are they necessarily rallying to him in a “force of personality” sort of way a la Kennedy. Obama is winning because George W. Bush is, quite literally, the most unpopular President ever and the public has a general preference for Democrats as a result. It also certainly helps that the economy is teetering on the brink just a month before the election. Put simply, in this scenario any viable looking Democrat would be winning the race by 4-8%. But conservatives really thought they were going to win because, like ay true believer, they must intrasically believe that the “silent majority” is really on their side. Obama might have generated a lot of headlines in the liberal media, and gotten a lot of communists to turn out for his rallies, but “real Americans” in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, etc. wouldn’t vote for him. You know the routine.

But most people aren’t movement conservatives, and they’re certainly not true followers of St. Rush. They don’t particularly hue to political ideology of any stripe, let alone the reigning one in a time of trouble. So the right did what the right knows how to do. They lied, they smeared, and they shouted really loudly. And to be honest, they probably believe the stuff they’re saying. They probably believe that Obama is going to propose massive tax increases on everyone, no matter that he’s proposing pretty broad tax cuts to all but the top 5% of earners. They probably believe he wants to impose universal mandates on health insurance, even as 6 months ago Obama was defending his lack of desire for mandates from Hillary Clinton. And they probably believe that the fact that he was on a charitable board with Bill Ayers, even though Ayers is a benine community activist these days and the board itself was founded by a friend of Ronald Reagan, really does mean something. That’s what you do when reality goes against your belief (if you’re an ideologue anyway), you concoct conspiracy theories and get “the real story,” and eventually believe that only you know the truth and everyone else is being delusional, even as you get more and more detached from reality.

What does this mean? Hell if I know. It means the right will have to add at least another layer in the aftermath of an Obama win, and it will have to be bigger than the ones they’re concocting now (think “Clinton murdered Vince Foster” here). It means they’ll further cocoon in a wave of ideological purity. You can probably count on a rash of movement conservatives being nominated for Congress and very possibly a right-wing Republican nominee for President in 2012. But above all else, it means even more layers of untruth and misbegotten beliefs on the American right, and in the long run even more people believing with all of their being complete nonsense.