Living in a Bubble

During the few times that I have been stuck listening to right wing radio—it can happen, trust me—I was always struck by the conciliatory tone of the callers.  It did not matter if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity were calling for armed insurrection or accusing the President of the United States of being a closeted Muslim from Kenya as the callers would continue to offer support or even more fringe views.

It appears as if the phone lines were not filled with actual members of the listening public, but rather were paid actors.   The company profiled in the linked article is Premiere On Call, which is a service of Premiere Radio Networks which is in turn a subsidiary of the giant media company Clear Channel Communications.

So, while we have always suspected that some of the callers to Howard Stern and his ilk were fabricated for the purposes of entertainment there was always the veneer of “reality” applied to the callers of politically centered talk radio.  It looks like the ardent supporters of Glenn Beck might not be so motivated by ideology as much as paying the rent on their studio apartment in Echo Park waiting for that call back.

This brings to bear the larger problem in our modern politics where we increasingly inhabit isolated bubbles of thought.  The internet has enabled this to a degree that would have been unimaginable only a few years prior.  Just think about someone who held some very fringe beliefs as far back as the early 1990s.  In those prehistoric times there was no easy way to discover a community of likeminded individuals.  Now, it’s just a Google search away for even the most esoteric set of beliefs.  Do you think that John Boehner is secretly an oompa loompa who escaped from Willy Wonka’s factory and took growth hormones?  There is probably an online gathering right now of kindred spirits.

The phenomenon of living in an ideological bubble afflicts both the left and right wings of American politics, but it seems to have metastized on the right to a degree that is increasingly detrimental.  Prior to the 2006 midterm election Karl Rove got into an argument with NPR host Robert Siegel where he said:

Yeah, I’m looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you’re entitled to your math, I’m entitled to THE math.

Neither of Rove’s predictions was borne out during the election.  In the subsequent elections Rove finds himself on the wrong side of electoral votes.  Why?

One could sum up the losing streak to a case of overinflated reputation.  Outside of being considered “Bush’s Brain” the man does not have a good history of being right in terms of electoral politics.  However, the right wing looked to him as a guru and that alone gives him power.

The reason may be that he, like so many right wingers, increasingly lives in a bubble of self-selected information.  What do I mean by this?  Well, if someone does not like the polls they exclude the results until it looks like something more favorable to your side.  In science this is considered junk research or methodological malfeasance, but in politics it is considered “unskewing the polls.”

During the run-up to the 2012 electoral contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney there was a story about how the Romeny camp “unskewed” the polls to account for the supposed “left wing” bias in traditional polling.  While it may have given the eventual losing side some extra spring in their step it was erroneous to a degree that was almost laughable.  When done correctly there is no need to adjust the results of a poll because it is statistically significant and, even more so, aggregates of polls or polls of polls reduce the chance of bias even further.

Just because you do not like what the poll is telling you does not mean that the poll is inaccurate.  It means that no one likes you.  Or, rather, just 47% of the population likes you in the case of Mitt Romney.

Politicians are spending so much time in echo chambers of their own creation that they are beginning to believe that the sound of their own voice is the will of the people.  Damn the polls!  Damn the election results!  I know I am right because that is all that I hear!

And we wonder why the U.S. federal government was shut down this fall and is looking at another shutdown in early 2014.


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