Peggy Noonan channels America: If she (or Joe Scarborough) believes it, so must the nation

What happens when your Hot Take has no evidence to back it up? Just say it's what "Americans" believe

Published October 8, 2014 4:40PM (EDT)

Peggy Noonan
Peggy Noonan

Being a pundit means that you have a preternatural ability to speak for “America.” The magic of punditry, the stuff that makes cable news hum, is the ability of the pundit to divine through telepathy or clairvoyance or good old fashioned gut feelings what “America” is thinking about any given issue at any given moment. Once the divination is complete, the pundit goes on television or writes a newspaper column and informs America of how they feel.

There are masters of this craft, like Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, whose connection with “America” is so finely tuned that she can sense the minutest vibrations in public sentiment and interpret them for her audience.  When news broke that a man in Texas had been diagnosed with Ebola, Peggy Noonan opened her mind to the country and sensed what they were feeling. With the IRS scandal and the Secret Service failures, Noonan discovered, America just wasn’t ready to trust the government when it said the Ebola situation was under control:

Ebola will not, all agreed, produce a full-fledged American epidemic. “We are stopping it in its tracks in this country,” Dr. Frieden said.

That may be true. But nobody thinks it because government doctors and professionals said it. Americans do not have confidence in what The Officials tell them anymore.

The skeptics among you might be quick to point out that Peggy Noonan, as a Republican and a conservative, is herself mistrustful of the Obama administration, so when she claims to be speaking for “Americans,” couldn’t it be that she’s simply projecting her own opinions onto the American public writ large?

Well, to all you logic-bound naysayers out there, if Noonan is wrong, then how do you explain the fact that so many other pundits arrived at the same exact conclusion?

Like NBC’s Joe Scarborough:

Right now, a lot of Americans are seeing what happened in Dallas and looking at your laundry list, what happened with the secret service, what happened with the IRS, what happened with the VA, what happened with ISIS being a JV team. So when anybody, any member of the government says, “Hey, just relax, everything’s going to be okay,” Americans don’t believe that.

And National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

Trust. There's that word again. How much faith can the public summon toward an administration that used incompetence as a defense in scandals involving the IRS, Benghazi, and Obamacare; that lied about its surveillance of Americans; and that just recently acknowledged dangerous misjudgments regarding the Secret Service and ISIS?

And Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson:

What more and more people seem to be asking about Ebola now isn't that they are necessarily scared about actually getting the disease, but that they're scared the government agencies responsible with helping us if we do get sick might not be up to the task. So if Ebola becomes a bigger issue, the question still remains: will we be safe?

Is it just a coincidence that all these seasoned observers of public opinion came up with the same argument for why the American people obviously don’t trust the government to stop the spread of Ebola? I mean, when four pundits are in such close agreement on an issue, it feels stupid to even question the truth of it.

But, in the spirit of science, we’ll put it to the test. Four pundits, all claiming that the IRS scandal and Benghazi and Obamacare and whatever have eroded public faith in “the government” so much that they just can’t bring themselves to trust public health officials when they say that Ebola is under control. Let’s go to the public opinion polls.

Hit me with some truth, Pew Research Center!

Most Are Confident in Government’s Ability to Prevent Major Ebola Outbreak in U.S.

As the Ebola outbreak in Africa continues, and two patients receive treatment in the U.S., most Americans have at least a fair amount of confidence in the government’s ability to prevent a major outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. In addition, relatively few are concerned that they or a family member will be exposed to the virus.

Oh… well, what about you Gallup?

Majority Have Confidence in Federal Government to Handle Outbreak

Americans have slightly less confidence in the federal government's ability to handle an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S. (61%) than they did about its ability to contain the swine flu in May 2009 (74%). More specifically, 26% today are very confident the government can handle Ebola, and 35% are somewhat confident. However, confidence in the federal government's ability to handle the swine flu in 2009 did diminish as the outbreak progressed.

Well, “slightly less confidence” than they had for swine flu is almost supportive of the pundits’ thesis, if you squint and don’t really think too hard. A 61 percent majority is a pretty strong vote of confidence, particularly given the absurd levels of panic stoked by the press.

Unsurprisingly, if you dig through the poll’s crosstabs you see that the public’s faith in the government’s ability to respond to health crises breaks down along partisan lines. Strong majorities of Democrats and independents have confidence that the feds can stand up to Ebola, compared to just 48 percent of Republicans (that’s still within spitting distance of a majority, though). So when all these pundits spoke for “Americans” who just can’t trust the government on Ebola, they weren’t actually speaking for anyone.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They were speaking for themselves and committing the Pundit’s Fallacy: I believe X, therefore America believes X. It’s a neat trick for giving your own opinions a sense of weight and significance, and it allows them sneak ideological arguments into their commentary without going through the tiresome business of backing them up.

In this case, four center-right pundits advanced the idea that the federal government is dangerously incompetent, making the unsupported assumption that failures in the Secret Service or the State Department’s diplomatic security office are predictive of failures by the CDC and other agencies tasked with confronting Ebola. But they didn’t actually bother to make that argument; instead they recast it as a “lack of trust” by “Americans” that the public health infrastructure can protect them. They had nothing to back this assertion up, but it neatly justifies their own conclusions and worldview. And if “America” believes it, how can they be wrong?

Well, America doesn’t believe it. But therein lies another great perk about being pundit. Generally speaking, being wrong doesn’t matter.

By Simon Maloy

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