Three days ago, Indiana governor Mike Pence admitted that he “didn’t anticipate the hostility” that would result from passing the state’s new anti-gay “Religious Freedom” law. Speaking to the press on Sunday and Monday, he emphatically denied that the new law was about anti-gay discrimination. All this, despite abundant warnings from legal experts about the nature of the law, warnings and examples from gay rights groups about the potential backlash, and the fact that three professional homophobes stood behind the governor when he signed the bill.
How could this be?
There are those who assume Pence is being obtuse, that he’s adopting ignorance as a defense against the “unforeseen” backlash, but there is another possibility: The governor of Indiana might honestly have been this out of touch with reality–as out of touch as Mitt Romney before the 2012 election, when he ordered celebratory fireworks and neglected to write a concession speech.
Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating thing, and April 1 is the perfect day to discuss it. As companies across the Internet post their best April Fools joke–from Southwest’s crazy new bag fee system to CERN’s announcement that the Force really is with you–they rely on cognitive dissonance to help you get the joke. When the human mind is confronted with new information that conflicts with what previous experience would lead it to expect, one way to reconcile that conflict is to recognize humor.
There are other responses to cognitive dissonance, however. One of the most fascinating is what researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler termed the backfire effect: the tendency of a person to reject new information when it contradicts that person’s belief or understanding, and double-down on that commitment.
A fictional example: Joe believes the moon is made of green cheese. He watches the moon landing and reads NASA studies that disprove his belief, but rather than altering his belief, Joe decides the moon landing was faked, NASA is involved in a conspiracy, and this in fact proves the cheese moon theory.
Which brings us back to Mike Pence–or rather, the entire Republican party. The backfire effect has become so widespread among Republicans that it’s practically the party’s platform: Global warming is a conspiracy. Trickle-down economics strengthens the economy, and Barack Obama has weakened it. Benghazi was a massive cover-up.
There are those who label each of these positions as a “Big Lie,” repeated because of rhetorical value, but major political missteps like Pence’s seem like evidence to the contrary; these are things many, if not most, Republican politicians sincerely believe. When Karl Rove made Megyn Kelly double-check that Obama had won reelection, it wasn’t some rhetorical tactic. It was because that news so conflicted with his sincerest understanding of reality.
So how can this be? How can political leaders in Congress and state legislatures and executive mansions be so completely out of touch with reality? Once again, the answer may be clearest if we look at Romney’s expectation that he would win in 2012.
Writing at Slate in 2012, John Dickerson laid out the reasons the Romney campaign was so confident, despite projections from almost everyone that put Obama way ahead: They simply didn’t believe the projections. When asked about the polls, Romney’s people said the polls were flawed. They built their own models instead, predicting a lower turnout by Democratic voters despite abundant evidence to the contrary. When confronted with a reality that didn’t match their expectations, Romney and his entire campaign–a billion dollar political machine with access to the world’s greatest experts in their field–took the backfire effect to a new level. They built their own reality.
It’s an approach that has defined right-wing media. Created to bolster the Republican base by affirming their existing world-views, right-wing media like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have carved out their audience by distorting reality. Fox News was, after all, still predicting a Romney victory when every other media agency said otherwise. More recently, they’ve filled their tanks with Benghazi, and responded to the CIA’s recent Torture Report (which undermined the right-wing position) by labeling it as a Democratic tactic to distract from Obamacare and comparing it to Rolling Stone’s discredited Virginia Tech story.
Fox News is the backfire effect network, and if you get most or all of your news from them–as Pew says an astonishing number conservatives do–then you are living in their distorted reality, a place where torture saves lives, Al Gore is raking in billions on global warming deception, and yes, Christians are a minority facing persecution from the gay agenda.
This, more than likely, is why Mike Pence was so shocked at the backlash against his bill: because Pence lives in a reality manufactured by the right-wing media, where Christians need laws to protect them from having to bake gay cakes, and a governor who passed such legislation would surely be showered with accolades. His America is one where “experts” are the three bigots smiling behind him, and not the 30 law professors who warned him that he was signing off on discrimination; one where business would boom for the state of Indiana like it did for Chick-Fil-A, and major corporations wouldn’t denounce him and pull their business out.
Even when reality hit Pence like a freight train, with fellow governors calling him a bigot, headlines in his home state’s largest newspaper labeling him “out of his league” as governor, and major corporations including Walmart and NASCAR denouncing Indiana, Pence won’t accept that reality isn’t as he wants it to be. Instead he sees “an Internet conspiracy,” as if the collective opinions of voices online aren’t reflective of public opinion, but instead a complex scheme to embarrass him and his home state.
The most frightening thing here is that Pence and Romney are not exceptions, they are the rule. Many republican politicians proudly declare that they only trust Fox News, and the same is true of the voters who put them in office. When this separation from reality is so clear, in spite of abundant warning and grave consequences, it raises serious questions about the ability of the Republican party–the party that currently owns Congress, 31 state legislatures, and 31 governor seats–to responsibly lead.