Even if they don’t like to say it out loud, lots of Democrats think that George Bush’s supporters are a horde of ignoramuses. Now comes evidence that they’re right! A remarkable new report, titled “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters,” from PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, suggests that rank and file Republicans are more benighted than even the most supercilious coastal elitist would imagine.
Analyzing data from a series of nationwide polls, the report finds that a majority of Bush supporters believe things about the world that are objectively untrue, while the majority of Kerry supporters dwell in the reality-based community. For example, Bush backers largely think that the president and his policies are popular internationally. Seventy-five percent believe that Iraq was providing “substantial” aid to al-Qaida, and 63 percent say clear evidence of this has been found. That, of course, would be news even to Donald Rumsfeld, who earlier this month told the Council on Foreign Relations, “To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two.”
Though its language is dispassionate, the report lays responsibility for this epidemic of ignorance at the White House’s door. “So why are Bush supporters clinging so tightly to these beliefs in the face of repeated disconfirmations?” it asks. “Apparently one key reason is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs.”
Indeed, it says, “an overwhelming 82% [of Bush supporters] perceive the Bush administration as saying that Iraq had WMD (63%) or a major WMD program (19%). Only 16% of Bush supporters perceive the administration as saying that Iraq had some limited activities, but not an active program (15%) or had nothing (1%). The pattern on al Qaeda is similar. Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters think the Bush administration is currently saying Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda (56%) or even that it was directly involved in 9/11 (19%). Further, 55% of Bush supporters say it is their impression the Bush administration is currently saying the US has found clear evidence Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda (not saying clear evidence found: 37%).”
These people aren’t going to be swayed by the argument that Bush has alienated America’s allies and left the country isolated in the world, because they don’t believe this to be the case. “Despite a steady flow of official statements, public demonstrations, and public opinion polls showing that the US war against Iraq is quite unpopular, only 31% of Bush supporters recognize that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq,” the study says. Bush supporters also think that world public opinion favors Bush’s reelection. In a poll taken from Sept. 3-7, the study says, “57% of Bush supporters assumed that the majority of people in the world would prefer to see Bush reelected, 33% assumed that views are evenly divided and only 9% assumed that Kerry would be preferred.”
In fact, a PIPA study released in early September found that a majority or plurality of people from 32 countries preferred Kerry to Bush. PIPA surveyed 34,330 people, ages 15 and above, from regions all over the world. A Pew poll released this spring similarly found that “large majorities in every country, except for the U.S., hold an unfavorable opinion of Bush.”
Bush supporters are also mistaken about the president’s own positions (a pattern of misapprehension that an earlier PIPA report also documented). “Majorities incorrectly assumed that Bush supports multilateral approaches to various international issues — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the treaty banning land mines (72%); 51% incorrectly assumed he favors US participation in the Kyoto treaty — the principal international accord on global warming … Only 13% of supporters are aware that he opposes labor and environmental standards in trade agreements — 74% incorrectly believe that he favors including labor and environmental standards in agreements on trade. In all these cases, there is a recurring theme: majorities of Bush supporters favor these positions, and they infer that Bush favors them as well.”
According to the report, this reality gap is something new in American life. “So why do Bush supporters show such a resistance to accepting dissonant information?” it asks. “While it is normal for people to show some resistance, the magnitude of the denial goes beyond the ordinary. Bush supporters have succeeded in suppressing awareness of the findings of a whole series of high-profile reports about prewar Iraq that have been blazoned across the headlines of newspapers and prompted extensive, high-profile and agonizing reflection. The fact that a large portion of Americans say they are unaware that the original reasons that the US took military action — and for which Americans continue to die on a daily basis — are not turning out to be valid, are probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news.”
The analysis says that the roots of this denial could lie in the trauma of 9/11 and people’s desire to hold on to their image of Bush as a “capable protector.” It offers no guidance, though, on how ordinary Republicans might be coaxed back to reality.
And while “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters” may be perversely satisfying to Democrats in its confirmation of blue-state prejudices, it carries a pretty disturbing question for all rational Americans: How can arguments based on fact prevail in a nation where so many people know so little?
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton). More Michelle Goldberg.
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