Election results a reminder that conservatives are overly skeptical of data

Brian Kelly Assistant Editor, The New Criterion
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A specter is haunting the conservative movement — the specter of anti-intellectualism. More than ever, politics has become grounded in ideology and distrustful of fact.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who some have speculated will be a GOP presidential contender in 2016, gave his first post-election interview this week. In it, he said Republicans need to “stop being the stupid party.” He continued:

It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that. It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.

That the conservative brand needs revisiting has become a common trope in the wake of the election. However, as Jindal’s comments suggest, there’s more work to be done than just writing new slogans and pursuing new special interest groups. For one thing, Republicans will need to look at and react to data differently.

Take, for instance, the insistence by many conservatives in the run-up to this month’s election that Mitt Romney was on track to win in a landslide. Dick Morris, Ed Morrissey, George Will, Glenn Beck, Larry Kudlow, Michael Barone, and Newt Gingrich all predicted that Romney would win with over 300 electoral votes. Meanwhile, non-pundits like Nate Silver, Sam Wang and the Princeton Election Consortium, Drew Linzer, and Simon Jackman were projecting wide electoral margins in favor of Obama. Conservatives were outraged by those projections. They claimed that the polls were skewed, and that the analysts were pushing a liberal agenda. But in the end, the statisticians turned out to be right.

Some of the above, like Dick Morris, frequently make erroneous projections. But even well-respected pundits like Michael Barone and George Will fell back on pure instinct — not any measurable metric of hard data — to justify their positions. For example, here’s how Will explained his prediction that Romney would carry Minnesota:

I guess the wild card in what I’ve projected is I’m projecting Minnesota to go for Romney. Now, that’s the only state in the union … that’s voted Democratic in nine consecutive elections. But this year, there’s a marriage amendment on the ballot that will bring out the evangelicals and, I think, could make the difference.

Obama went on to win Minnesota by 7.7 points and Will was forced to try and explain why he was so wrong.

In a sense, Will’s pre-election rationalizing was a natural reaction — after all, it’s not fun to admit that you’re losing. But it’s not a healthy reaction. If you can’t even acknowledge that you’re behind, it’ll be hard to catch up. John Ziegler explains:

For conservatives, this natural human inclination to embrace the data that they like and discard the rest is greatly enhanced, and essentially injected with steroids. This is because they have a very understandable and highly justified distrust of a news media which has been showing open hostility to the prospects of our candidates for as long as any of us can remember. … But because conservatives are understandably so distrustful of everything they are told by the media, it becomes easy for them to fall into the trap of assuming that polls showing Obama winning are inherently flawed. They are even able to come up with enough real numbers to make arguments which appear to be based in intellect, even though they are really being driven by emotion and self-interest. … I was perfectly willing to buy the notion that the polls were, to a small but significant degree, biased in favor of Obama, but there were far more reliable factors which told me this was not really the case.

The reason Silver et al. did such a good job of predicting the election results was that they were able to put aside their gut instincts and biases, and instead focus on what the data was telling them. In the coming years, conservatives will have to do the same.

Of course, not every issue will be as black and white as the election was. Many events can’t be predicted by crunching numbers and looking at research. No matter how complex an algorithm one uses, it will remain impossible to know the best way to handle fighting between Hamas and Israel. But on issues that do lend themselves to such analysis, politicos should stop trying to undermine the data and work toward solutions that are supported by what is known and not what they feel in their guts.

If there is one thing that the mistakenness of the pundits and the accuracy of the pollsters can teach us about the next four years, it’s that when you ground your ideas in reality, you get better results. There are plenty of issues that a divided Washington will have to deal with in the near future — most pressingly, the fiscal cliff. While there will most certainly be disagreements on how to solve this and other problems, the coming discussions should be fact-based and data-driven, not informed solely by political philosophy. Unless both the politicians and the electorate can divorce discussions of the most salient problems facing modern America — the economy, foreign policy, the environment — from emotional ideology, we will likely face four years of unsustainable gridlock.

Brian Kelly is a freelance writer, the assistant editor at The New Criterion, and a recent graduate of Brown University.