Stumper: The First ‘Postmodern’ Presidency?

Stumper (9/24/08)

The First ‘Postmodern’ Presidency?

In his new article on Team McCain’s willingness to say something misleading and then, when challenged, suggest that the truth or falsity of their statements doesn’t actually matter–Obama commits the first sin, but not the second–the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait highlights a fascinating poly-sci study that I, for one, had never heard of:

Last February, political scientists Brendan Nyhan of Duke and Jason Reifler of Georgia State published the results of an experiment designed to test the effects of political untruths. The results would unsettle any idealist. The first conclusion they found was that lies work. When subjects were confronted with an untrue political claim (President Bush banned stem-cell research; weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq) respondents naturally moved toward those positions. When the lie was corrected, however, the effect of the untruth in moving opinions largely remained. The truth, in other words, is no antidote for a lie.

Their second conclusion was even more disturbing. Subjects who identified as politically conservative were not only immune to the effects of having a lie corrected, the correction made them even more likely to believe a lie. So, for instance, one group of conservative subjects was presented with a news story that depicted President Bush claiming weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. A second group of conservatives was presented with the same thing, along with a paragraph noting that Bush’s statement was untrue. The second group was more likely than the first to believe that Iraq possessed WMDs. The very fact of the press challenging their beliefs seems to have made conservatives more likely to embrace them. If this finding is broadly correct, then the media’s newfound willingness to fact-check McCain will only succeed in rallying the GOP base to his side.

Who knows if Steve Schmidt and Co. are aware of the Georgia State research. But I suspect that they intuitively grasp its importance. It’s why spokesman Brian Rogers told Politico that “we’re running a campaign to win, and we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.” And it’s why Republican strategist John Feehery informed The Washington Post that “the more The New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there, and the bigger truths are: She’s new, she’s popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent. As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.” It’s not just that getting factchecked doesn’t dissuade voters from believing the initial lie. It’s that it actually makes some of them more likely to believe it. So why not just make stuff up?

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