Part 3—In search of information and outreach: What do we the people think?
We the people may have strange ideas! Information surveys have long made it clear—we often don’t know the most basic facts about even the most significant issues.
In the modern partisan context, tribal disinformation and messaging may take over from there.
And so it was that a set of voters offered their reactions to an anodyne statement from Wednesday’s State of the Union Address. On Hannity, Dr. Luntz quoted something Obama said. His focus group took it from there:
LUNTZ (1/25/12): Sean, I want to go right now to a clip about fairness because the president talked about it several times tonight...Those objections to Obama’s statement aren’t necessarily “false” or unfounded. But what do these voters actually think? Consider what the last woman said:
OBAMA (videotape): We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
LUNTZ: “Everyone plays by the same set of rules. Everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Who is against that here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not true. He says everyone plays by the same set of rules, and the tax credit is for you, and the tax breaks are for you, it's— He singled out everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't make life fair. Life is not fair. And there's no way to do it. And that's really code for what the president is saying. And I think it's just—he's just talking socialism again. And economically—
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How can the expectation be that we play by the same set of rules when government doesn't?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I don't think you can talk about fairness and having a fair share and working the same when you're giving people, you're holding hands and you're giving people too many opportunities.
She seemed to say that Obama has been “holding hands and giving people too many opportunities.” But what did she mean by that? Was that a reference to “Obamacare?” Was it a “food stamps” reference?
Let’s consider the bombastic charge Newt Gingrich has been tossing around.
Over and over, conservative voters keep getting told that Obama is “the most successful food stamp president in history.” Could that be what this woman meant? Is that what she had in mind? If so, what does she think Obama has done with regard to food assistance programs? What does she think Gingrich is specifically saying when he tosses that charge all around?
Like you, we have no way of knowing what that irate woman meant. Nor do we know what voters think and believe concerning Obama and “food stamps.”
Gingrich keeps delivering his charge. He did so again after Wednesday’s address. But what does Gingrich even mean by his repeated assertion? Does he mean that Obama has widened eligibility for food assistance? Does he mean that Obama’s job plans have failed—that this has widened participation? Plainly, Gingrich seems to be saying that Obama wants many people on food assistance. He has repeatedly said or implied that Obama wants to create “a culture of dependence.”
What do voters think and believe about this repeated charge? We have never seen a print reporter or TV host ask a range of voters what they think the facts might be concerning this topic. (We would love to see Ed Schultz discuss this topic with a range of average voters.) And oh yes: Despite the repeated nature of this charge, we haven’t seen any major news org present a news report about the facts behind this charge.
On our liberal sites, we call the charge racist and then we move on. This strikes us as ineffective.
Last May, Politifact developed a fair amount of information when they fact-checked Gingrich’s statement about our “food stamp president” (click here). But very few voters read that site. (It foolishly ranked his statement “half true.”) How many voters have been exposed to a range of information about this matter? More to the point:
Have you ever seen a liberal entity conduct outreach to voters regarding this topic? Regarding any topic? Despite Gingrich’s serial bombast, we have never seen a major newspaper lay out the facts about food assistance during the current economic meltdown. But beyond that: As Gingrich throws this bomb around, have you ever seen a liberal news org develop the background information? Have you seen any liberal entity conduct outreach forums in which the basic facts of this matter are explained to average voters?
We have not. Voters like that “unidentified woman” hear all manner of garbage from Newt; they interpret such bombast as they might. Have you ever seen your tribe attempt to perform fundamental outreach? Have you ever seen a major news org explain the facts of this case?
Information plays an amazingly limited role in our political culture. Within the liberal world, outreach to average voters is virtually non-existent; we specialize in repeating the claims on which we already agree. And when we voters are left on our own, weird thoughts may worm their way into our heads. This brings us back to Marc Fisher’s front-page report in last Saturday’s Washington Post.
Fisher explored the way voters form their views in these highly tribal times. Many voters now get their information from highly partisan sources, he said.
But uh-oh! The process doesn’t seem to be taking hold with one of the three South Carolina voters Fisher profiled! James Akers is a Democratic Party official—and he may vote for Romney:
FISHER (1/21/12): Akers, a 30-year-old real estate agent who is also vice chairman of Greenville County’s Democratic Party, is an incessant tweeter...Akers is a Democratic Party official—but he may vote for Romney! The information bubble doesn’t seem to be working its will on him.
What Akers recommends to his 798 followers on Twitter are news articles and commentaries, almost all from sites that fit comfortably with his socially liberal perspective—places such as MSNBC, Huffington Post, Mother Jones and CNN.
But Akers was never so deep in his information bubble as to block out alternative ideas. Although he was a Hillary Clinton delegate at the last Democratic convention, he has been disappointed enough by Obama—“He’s become such a divisive figure”—to have fallen for Jon Huntsman, the Republican who Akers thought would be tough on spending but moderate on social issues.
Now that Huntsman has dropped out, Akers is weighing whether to risk expulsion from the county Democratic hierarchy if he votes in the GOP primary—in South Carolina, all voters may take part in any party’s primary—or stick with his own party.
He has been surprised to find himself interested in Romney as a moderate who might not be that different from Obama and might be more competent.
On the other hand, Fisher also profiled 46-year-old Diane Belsom. Life inside the bubble seems to agree with her:
FISHER: Belsom—gracious, willowy and chatty—sometimes worries that she’s not seeing the full picture, yet she wants her family to live firmly in “our Christian worldview. I want my daughter to know that we are under attack by radical Islam, even if she sometimes gets depressed about the whole movement to Sharia law. I home-school her because the government schools have an anti-Christian worldview, so they’re teaching lies.”Sometimes, we the people have the darnedest ideas! Belsom’s “honest opinion” is that Obama “hates our country and is trying to destroy us.” Her daughter “sometimes gets depressed about the whole movement to Sharia law.”
Growing up in South Florida, Belsom read three local newspapers, and the family watched the evening news on TV. But as she and her parents grew more religious, they began reading mainly conservative and Christian outlets. The bookcases in Belsom’s home office include shelves of titles on creationism, as well as books warning against pornography, “the gay agenda” and radical Islam.
On Facebook, the big story is Obama deciding against approving an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. Belsom scans rants against the decision. One headline reads, “Obama cans pipeline, signaling no interest in job creation”.
“I think we can all agree Obama’s driving us into the ground,” she says. “My honest opinion is that he hates our country and is trying to destroy us. Hopefully, I’m not too tunnel-visioned. But I guess I mostly see what I agree with.”
And wait—there’s more! "I think we can all agree Obama’s driving us into the ground,” Belsom says. What do you suppose she means by that? What do you suppose she knows, or thinks she knows, about the growth of food assistance?
Voters think the darnedest things, especially in this age of burgeoning tribal culture. Having said that, we’ll ask you again:
Have you ever seen a major newspaper explain the facts about food assistance? Have you ever seen a liberal news org do so? Have you ever seen a progressive org conduct outreach to average voters about this topic? About any topic? Do you know of any such org which has created a forum the average voter would be inclined to trust?
Voters think the darnedest things! As we look at the burgeoning tribal world, we see little effort from our own tribe to intervene in this disastrous process.
Was the third voter the charm: Who was Fisher’s third Palmetto State voter? Read his piece and see! This young woman tries to read a lot of news sources to learn as much as she can.
Question: Where could she go to learn the facts about that “food stamps” charge? Do you know of any forum our tribe is conducting, to which she might be sent?