As social media accelerates the velocity of political news, fact-free stereotypes and reductionist shorthand are increasingly substituted for accuracy and nuance. Coastal blue states are now typically presented in the national press as one giant Berkeley campus while heartland red states are portrayed as a confederacy of “Dukes of Hazzard” sets. In this cartoonish mythology, liberals are all Birkenstock-clad socialists, conservatives are all Boss Hoggs -- and politics is a perpetual conflict between these two warring tribes.
The trouble, of course, is that the folklore has a diminishing connection to reality. Case in point is the narrative that now defines the Washington debate over gun control.
This week, in a piece summarizing that narrative, Time magazine's White House correspondent Michael Scherer asserted that television ads pressuring lawmakers to support background check legislation will harm Democratic politicians who represent Republican-leaning states (ed. note: Scherer disputes this interpretation of his argument). About the ads, Scherer asked: "Is it better to teach wavering Democrats that there is a cost to voting against gun control, even if it jeopardizes Democratic control of the Senate, which is needed to enact gun control?"
In this case, the fact-free mythology promoted the stereotype that claims all conservatives are gun extremists. From that stereotype came Time's assumption that most conservative voters automatically oppose mandated background checks for gun purchases, and that therefore those voters will punish Democratic senators who support background checks. The assumption, in other words, is that there are only two sides to the gun debate, and that rank-and-file conservative voters are uniformly against all firearm regulations, no matter how modest those regulations are.
What's amazing -- and horrifying -- is that this kind of schlock is considered serious analysis in Washington, despite concrete facts proving it false.
For instance, months before Time's article, a March poll by Schoen LLC found that 84 percent of voters in the red state of Arkansas support background check legislation.
Likewise, a May survey by Public Policy Polling found that Democratic incumbents in the red states of North Carolina and Louisiana "helped their cause for re-election with their recent votes in support of background checks." More specifically, the survey found "70 percent of voters in each of their states support such checks" and also found that the incumbents' "constituents say they're more likely to vote for them next year because of their votes." These results were subsequently corroborated in PPP's follow-up polls in Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee.
This dissonance between the manufactured story and the clear reality of gun politics exemplifies a larger dynamic. On issue after issue, reporters, pundits and politicians in Washington increasingly tell themselves stories about America that simply aren't true. Those fairy tales often pretend the nation is far more conservative than it actually is, and that has serious negative consequences.
For example, as I've previously reported, the fairy tales are likely why the University of California's recent nationwide survey of lawmakers found that "conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are ... while liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism."
Similarly, the fairy tales tend to cast majoritarian legislation like the background check bill as politically impossible, which in turn becomes self-fulfilling conventional wisdom in Washington. The ensuing gridlock consequently fuels the crisis of legitimacy now seen in the polls -- the one in which more and more Americans now say the government doesn't understand or care about the rest of the country.
Washington, no doubt, writes off that disillusionment. The ruling political and media class probably tells itself it is just because Americans are dumb. But, as always, the real story is the converse: It is because Americans are smart -- and getting smarter.