Wingnuts are gullible! How GOP’s bubble of ignorance keeps leading to humiliation

Why does the right keep falling for false stories about poverty and social programs? Hint: An ideological fixation

Topics: Paul Ryan, Julie Boonstra, Americans for Prosperity, CPAC, School Lunches, Food Stamps, Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, Editor's Picks, The Right, GOP, Ronald Reagan,

Wingnuts are gullible! How GOP's bubble of ignorance keeps leading to humiliationRonald Reagan, Paul Ryan (Credit: AP/Eric Gay)

Looking back on the events of last week, I’m struck by how lucky Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was to be awarded the uncoveted early-Thursday speaking slot at CPAC Thursday morning.

Because though kicking things off at a three-day event like CPAC means speaking to smaller audiences and fewer cameras, it also means that there are three days of intensifying stagecraft ahead of you to distract attention from whatever errors you might make.

And Paul Ryan made a doozy of an error. It attracted plenty of coverage anyhow, but probably would’ve attracted more if it hadn’t happened before all the jousting began. In case you missed it, Ryan recounted a story he heard secondhand about a poor child who felt bad about being on a subsidized school lunch program while other kids brought their lunches to school in brown bags, to serve the argument that parents who can’t afford to bag their children’s lunches for them don’t care about their kids as much as better-off parents do.

The view he expressed is strange enough. Being an impoverished parent isn’t actually coterminous with being a “poor” parent, in the normative sense of the word. And even though children on school lunch programs are surely stigmatized by their peers in some communities, the solution is to combat the stigma, not to moot it by just letting those kids go hungry.

But as you’ve probably heard by now, the story he told never happened. He recapitulated the erroneous testimony of a fellow social spending scold without vetting her story, which she had taken from some pro-social spending literature and tortured beyond recognition.

For someone like Ryan who often treats politics as a contest of character, that’s a pretty epic blunder. He’s since apologized for not checking his facts, which undoes some of the damage. But that mainly just changes the frame of the story. In addition to making an incredibly questionable moral argument, he also exposed the depths of his most politically problematic ideological fixation. Either he doesn’t care about truth, or his faith in the ubiquity of poverty traps and dependency and so on is so strong that he sees no reason to doubt any corroborative anecdotes, no matter how apocryphal.

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This is a familiar epistemic problem, but I’m bringing it up now because it has metastasized into a national campaign strategy.

If you’re sure your ideas are correct and confident your solutions are the right ones you’ve already erected a significant barrier to self-examination. And when admitting error carries enormous financial, personal and ideological risk, it feels easier not to check. You’re shocked when your candidate loses, because none of your friends voted for the other guy. And you just pass along stories they tell you about the soul-crushing nature of welfare, or the horrors of the Affordable Care Act, without bothering to apply a smell test.

Combine that instinct with a well-heeled, amoral campaign apparatus and you get a bunch of Americans for Prosperity ads that wither under scrutiny.

For instance: “A Dexter cancer patient featured in a conservative group’s TV ad campaign denouncing her new health care coverage as ‘unaffordable’ will save more than $1,000 this year under the plan, The Detroit News has learned.”

(They’re referring to Julie Boonstra, whose story we’ve examined multiple times, and have confirmed what I and others long suspected.)

That’s not to diminish the annoyance and uncertainty she felt when her old plan was eliminated, but to say that the premise of her complaint about her new plan is wrong. AFP probably doesn’t care; it’s just as likely that they never bothered to check. Here’s what Boonstra had to say.

When advised of the details of her Blues’ plan, Boonstra said the idea that it would be cheaper “can’t be true.”

“I personally do not believe that,” Boonstra said.

Of possible relevance to her incredulity: “Boonstra is the ex-wife of Mark Boonstra, the former Washtenaw County GOP chairman whom Gov. Rick Snyder appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2012.”

Back East, AFP found similar ACA victims. “Two New Hampshire women featured in a major television advertising buy critical of Democratic Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster’s support for the Affordable Care Act are state Republican activists.”

Again, I don’t think the collapse of these stories suggests that nobody is genuinely worse off because of Obamacare. Slate’s Dave Weigel found some that seem to fit the bill in Florida just last week! But there aren’t as many as Republicans would have you believe, and inconveniently they are unlikely to be older people with preexisting conditions, because the law is designed to make sure people like that aren’t left behind. Conservatives aren’t venturing very far outside of the movement to find them, though. Because on the right, a story about a child who feels unloved due to his family’s poverty must be true, in the same way that a story about Obamacare hurting a cancer patient can’t possibly be false.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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