• A suffocating echo chamber
    September 27,2013
     

    When Sen. Ted Cruz of La Mancha jumped on his trusty steed and charged the windmills, he explained: “Everyone in America knows Obamacare is destroying the economy.” He added that accepting the Affordable Care Act would be like appeasing the Nazis.

    Cruz is a smart man, and maybe this is just disingenuous demagoguery. But there’s a scarier possibility: After spending too much time in the Republican echo chamber, he may believe what he says.

    In the 1990s, as conservative talk radio spread across America, liberals felt victimized. But, in retrospect, the rise of talk radio, Fox News Channel and right-wing websites may have done greatest harm to conservatives themselves.

    The right-wing echo chamber breeds extremism, intimidates Republican moderates and misleads people into thinking that their worldview is broadly shared.

    That’s the information bubble that tugs the entire Republican Party to the right and that transforms people like Cruz into crusading Don Quixotes. And that’s why Republicans may lead us over a financial cliff, even though polling suggests that voters would blame them.

    In one extreme case, the right-wing media bubble may even have been lethal for its inhabitants. That was the 2009-10 swine flu epidemic, which eventually killed up to 18,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    When the flu first emerged, Republicans and Democrats responded with the same level of concern. That makes sense. Why should political differences affect our judgments about health?

    But then conservative commentators began to denounce the Obama administration’s call for people to get vaccinated. Glenn Beck said he would do “the exact opposite” of what the federal government recommended. Rush Limbaugh said: If “you have some idiot government official demanding, telling me I must take this vaccine, I’ll never take it.”

    Some on the left also voiced suspicion of the vaccine, but it was more common on right-wing shows to hear that flu vaccinations were a nefarious Obama plot.

    The upshot was that Democrats were 50 percent more likely to say that they would get the life-saving vaccinations, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. Matthew A. Baum, the Harvard scholar who wrote the journal article, told me that he couldn’t calculate how many of the total flu deaths were attributable to conservatives putting too much faith in their pundits.

    Something similar may have happened when conservatives like Michele Bachmann denounced the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer (Bachmann suggested that the vaccine could be “very dangerous”). Only 35 percent of girls have received the full course of HPV vaccinations, with particularly low rates in more conservative states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah and Kansas. That can’t be good for women in those states.

    Of course, the left has long had its own version of this problem as well. After Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide re-election, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker famously said she was mystified because she knew only one person who had voted for Nixon. MSNBC and The Huffington Post have become cocoons for liberals, just as Fox News is for conservatives.

    Both Fox News and MSNBC rely more on punditry than on reporting from the field, and I remember once early in the Iraq war when I was with U.S. troops watching on Fox News Channel as blowhards in the studio claimed that Iraqis were welcoming us with flowers. We watched, stunned, wondering what war the network was covering.

    Research suggests that the echo chamber effect is disproportionately a problem on the right, leading inhabitants to perceive a warped reality. Many Republicans were shocked that Mitt Romney was defeated last fall because they had been assured that he would win. And a Pew survey last year found that the proportion of conservative Republicans who believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim has doubled since 2008 to 34 percent.

    Then there was the time that Beck aired the theory that Obama is the Antichrist (he later said he had been joking).

    The right-wing bubble makes it harder to elect Republican presidents by enforcing an ideological purity in primaries that weakens candidates in general elections. Too much time in the bubble also leaves some Republican politicians saying things that just sound nutty to independents. For example, some Republican members of the House are taking seriously the conspiracy notion that the government is buying up bullets so that private gunowners won’t be able to defend themselves.

    Yet when Don Cruz of La Mancha and other extremists threaten a cataclysm that could damage the national economy, we have self-inflicted not just harm, but also a threat to the national well-being.

    I often cover dysfunctional, strife-ridden countries, from Congo to Syria, Sudan to Afghanistan. This fall, alas, it looks as if I won’t have to travel so far.



    Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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