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Thu Oct 4, 2012, 11:39 AM

The Backfire Effect: why Obama didn't call out Romney. [View all]

"But why would people so woefully lacking in the basic facts of an issue think they were the best informed? Social scientists call the effect, 'pseudo-certainty.' I call it, 'being a fucking moron.'" -- Al Franken

The use of cognitive bias against the public can probably be traced back to the United States' foundation. Consider, for example, the rapier-like tact Americans used in the Declaration of Independence, directing all of their ire against Great Britain's slowly maddening King instead of the Parliament that they knew had wronged them. I think it is a classic example of misdirection, in the same family of dishonesty as mentioning Osama bin Laden in the same paragraph every time one mentions Saddam Hussein.

Last night, Mitt Romney made the most of a particular cognitive bias which we all need to know about. It is called the Backfire Effect. Here is a link to the paper.

People have a bad habit of clinging to disinformation, particularly if they are fed the disinformation first. If the disinformation is refuted, many of us simply give up trying to figure the problem out and default to the first thing we learned, and if the first thing we learned is crap, we believe the crap.

We are all vulnerable to some degree to the Backfire Effect, but there is a critical difference in the way the Backfire Effect works between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.

The shortest version I can give is this: when a conservative lies and a liberal refutes the lie, conservative observers become more likely to believe the lie. This effect does not work in reverse--because liberals have better thinking skills, I say, but I'm biased. This is part of the reason why an alarming number of American doofuses are still shambling about thinking that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and why the vast majority of them are Republicans.

Up to now, Mitt Romney's biggest problem has been that he hasn't won over the right-wing authoritarians who make up the most important voting bloc in the Republican Party, and maybe in all of American politics. They are diligent voters and can be easily programmed with lies, fear, and racism, of which they are fed a steady diet by Fox News and AM radio. Almost one in four Americans fits the profile of a right-wing authoritarian.

Despite every effort, right down to nominating arch-conservative darling Paul Ryan, Romney just hasn't been able to convince them that he's their guy.

And why should they think so, when Romney gamed the nomination process, knocked off the conservative authorities they trust one by one, and silenced all dissent at the convention? He had to steal it from them before he can steal it from us, and they haven't easily forgotten.

Last night was Romney's last big chance. He's got the press and the pollsters pulling for him to make it a closer race, because it is to their personal, professional, and financial advantage. He has finally assembled the captive audience of right-wing authoritarians he needs to win over. All he needed to do was to finally, permanently, establish himself as a conservative authority, someone the conservatives can trust.

He needed President Obama to help him, by doing what every Democrat, including myself, wanted him to do: call Mitt a liar.

So Mitt Romney went out and did what he's best at. He lied his ass off. He changed a central plank of his platform at the debate in an attempt to draw out President Obama, to encourage the President to raise his voice and express outrage at such malicious dishonesty.

But President Obama wouldn't bite.

Instead, the President stuck to his own policy, his own platform, and pointed out only the most basic and agreed-upon flaws in whatever Romney's so-called plan is today (or rather, last night, because I'm sure he's walking back half of what he said right now). He tried not to show flashes of anger or disgust, as Al Gore so tragically did in 2000.

It was probably disappointing to all of us here to see the President steer away from direct confrontation, but it probably also sealed the election for him.

Consider what would have happened had the debate swung a different way.

Gov. Romney: "I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan...."

President Obama: "That's bullshit. You've run on that all year."

Millions of Democrats would have stood up and cheered at that moment, to be sure, but it wouldn't have done a damned thing to change the political landscape because we're all already going to go out and vote for President Obama, and every other Democrat on the ballot. We're all registered now, right?

Just as certainly, a giant mob of tea-partiers would have been on their feet and whooping. That would have been the signal they needed, the sign from baby Jesus that Mitt Romney was the anointed one. They would have dusted off their IDs and registrations, and they would have come out and voted--at a higher frequency, unfortunately, than we do. Millions of our votes would have been canceled out.

We need to realize that right now an unusually high number of right-wing voters are far closer to reality than they usually are. They don't trust Mitt Romney, and they shouldn't, and it is to their credit that they do not in spite of the enormous psyops being run on them.

But we also need to acknowledge that these voters unfortunately tend strongly toward racism, and are highly motivated to vote against President Obama simply because he is a person of color. President Obama will never win their vote--but he might win their non-vote.

So that is why President Obama didn't "win" last night's debate. Because this debate wasn't about us. But do you know who is going to refute Mitt Romney's bullshit? We are. In the voting booth.

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