A Data Point on "Epistemic Closure"
There has been a bit of a debate going on in the blogosphere the last few days on whether conservatives have achieved "epistemic closure." (Links and commentary here.) I won't get into the deep philosophical meaning the term. What it seems to mean in terms of the current discussion is that conservatives live in a cocoon or echo chamber in which they only read conservative magazines like National Review and the Weekly Standard, only listen to conservative talk radio, only watch Fox News and only visit conservative web sites. It's a closed loop in which any opinions or facts that conflict with the conservative worldview are either avoided, ignored or automatically dismissed on the grounds that they must be liberal or come from liberals.
I believe this view of how conservatives think is correct and want to pass along the moment when I first realized it in 2004.
Earlier that year, journalist Ron Suskind had published The Price of Loyalty based on extensive interviews with former George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. This book made many charges about the insularity of the Bush White House, the president's unwillingness to listen to any opinions that didn't confirm those he already had and others that have been confirmed by subsequent reportage.
I liked Ron's book and wrote a favorable column about it leading him to call me. We hit it off and would chat every once in a while afterwards. Basically, we were both trying to figure out the same things: What makes Bush tick? Where does he get his information? Why is he always so sure of himself? Is he capable of admitting error?
Then one day in mid-October I got a call from a woman at the New York Times Magazine saying she was fact-checking an article by Suskind that mentions me. I didn't think too much about it and confirmed that I had indeed said the things I was quoted as saying. What the fact-checker neglected to tell me is the context in which I was quoted or the extent. I learned this a few days later when the Suskind article went out on the wire.
I had been scheduled to do a radio show in Detroit on Wednesday about something or other and was asked if the subject could be changed. I asked what they wanted to talk about. They told me that they wished to discuss the big article about me in the New York Times Magazine. In fact, they said, the first two words in the article were my name and the first several paragraphs essentially quoted me verbatim.
I didn't see the article itself until Saturday night when the Times posted it online. Here are the first three paragraphs:
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .
''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''
The reason I bring all this up is because of what happened subsequently, which relates to the question of epistemic closure. A few days after the article appeared I was at some big conservative event in Washington. I assumed that my conservative friends would give me a lot of crap for what I said. But in fact no one said anything to me--and not in that embarrassed/averting-one's-eyes sort of way. They appeared to know nothing about it.
After about half an hour I decided to start asking people what they thought of the article. Every single one gave me the same identical answer: I don't read the New York Times. Moreover, the answers were all delivered in a tone that suggested I was either stupid for asking or that I thought they were stupid for thinking they read the Times.
I suppose this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. After all, the people I was questioning weren't activists from the heartland, but people who worked on Capitol Hill, at federal agencies, in think tanks and so on. They represented the intelligentsia of the conservative movement. Even if they felt they had no need for the information content of the nation's best newspaper, one would have thought they would at least need to know what their enemies were thinking.
This was the first time I really understood what is now being called epistemic closure. In the years since, it appears to have gotten much worse.