What's the matter with Romney and O'Reilly?

On post-electoral punditry, not a thing. Photo: Associated Press

FLORIDA, November 21, 2012 — Yesterday, I wrote that both Bill O’Reilly and Mitt Romney were correct in their analyses of how the President achieved reelection.

As the presidential returns were trickling in, O’Reilly remarked that America is a changing country. This was in reference to the fact that an increasing number of people are dependent on direct government assistance — 49.1 percent in 2011 versus 30 percent in 1983. Combine that with the unremarkable assertion that people tend to vote their pocketbooks, and you have increasing voter support for candidates who promise to continue and expand that assistance. 

Exit polls showed that 20 percent of voters this month had an annual income below $30,000. Sixty-three percent of those supported Barack Obama, while 35 percent went for Romney. When a politician finds such overwhelming traction within a group, coincidence is not the reason.

This should have been evidence enough to support O’Reilly’s argument. Like clockwork, however, our nation’s media hounds exploded in fury.

Mitt Romney joined O’Reilly in stating the obvious in a conference call several days after his defeat. In so many words, he credited Obama’s second term to the allotment of “gifts” for key members of the latter’s electoral coalition. These gifts, of course, came in the form of direct public assistance programs.

Interestingly enough, the left was not alone in criticizing Romney for his observation. Old and new faces alike within the so-called conservative movement joined the fray. Notable names included Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, and George Will.

My opinion that O’Reilly and Romney recognized the facts as they are seems to be controversial. Most reader criticism of the article avoids refuting the analysis with evidence, however. It consists largely of pep talks for the Democratic Party, demonizations of the GOP, and angry personal attacks. Some people concluded that I must be a right-wing conservative. Obviously, they don’t read this column very often.

This is all indicative of a larger problem in our society and our political discourse. Partisan rage is found on both ends of the political spectrum, and it seems to be growing worse by the year. (We should be grateful, though, that it hasn’t matched the levels achieved in the 19th century.) What we see in politics is the triumph of passion over objective reasoning, the practice of politics as religion rather than science.

We have an enormous variety of news outlets today across a variety of media. We have the capacity to be the best-informed generation of voters in history, with the chance to compare and weigh information from that vast ocean of news. Yet people watch the news that best suits their views, choosing to restrict themselves to very narrow slices of the news spectrum. Rather than being better informed, we’ve chosen to feed our passions and our prejudices. We form opinions of politicians and pundits on the basis of stereotypes that we’ve built from caricatures. We rush to judgment long before any real evidence is presented.

If we were to form our conclusions about voter motivations in the presidential race from the polling data, we would better understand the conclusions shared by O’Reilly, Romney, and many others, even if we didn’t agree with them. Instead, we form our conclusions from the conclusions of others. Our conclusions are often predigested and repackaged by our preferred news outlets. 

The unfortunate reality is that emotionalism has taken a firm hold of our country’s political arena. We vote our beliefs, and cherry pick information to confirm our beliefs. Prior to the election, people on the right were highly prone to this, so lost in confirmation bias that honestly believed that Obama would lose in a landslide. The data suggesting otherwise were in front of them all the time, but they refused to see it.

Now, an alarming number of people on the left also wilfully ignore the statistics in front of them. This is understandable, as the data don’t entirely support the version of reality that they prefer, but it’s still an unhealthy way to look at the world. 

A major reason for centrism’s contemporary decline is that it offers little room for the this kind of emotionalism. It should come as no surprise that most of O’Reilly’s and Romney’s detractors are either well to the left or far out on the right. The fact that they visit me in my relative obscurity to vent their wrath further suggests that this is about the religion of politics, not the science. 

So, the question of “What’s the matter with Romney and O’Reilly?” is far deeper than most would guess. In terms of both men’s election analyses, my opinion is there are few factual arguments which can be made to counter them. If you disagree, the appropriate response would be to prove me wrong with the facts.

The real problem is that the facts appear to be of decreasing value in our society.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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