I love good science fiction and, in particular a well-tuned alternate reality story. Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by the latest right-wing pundit ploy.
Back in college (UC Berkeley, 1970s… you do the math), I was lucky enough to sign up for a course on science fiction, an entire class filled with nothing but alien worlds and time loops. For a kid who’d grown up on the Tom Swift series, A Wrinkle in Time, and early Heinlein, this was like finding the best possible prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.
We read Perelandra and Flatland, Slaughterhouse-Five and Fahrenheit 451. But the best of them all was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a dystopian novel of an alternate future in which the Axis emerged victorious from World War II. The United States was then divided, with most of the east going to Germany while the Pacific states went to the Japanese. Several of the main characters, including, a sad sack named Frank Frink (a typical PhilDickian hero, movie versions notwithstanding), become fascinated by the story of a mysterious writer—the titular Man—who lives in the Rocky Mountain Neutral Zone and has, some believe, written a novel about an alternate future in which the Allies won the war. Built like a Mobius strip, Dick’s tale was exactly the kind I found most fascinating.
Why this preface? Because I feel like we’re living in just that kind of alternate reality right now. There’s an entirely new narrative rising on our right, stirring the waves of political fervor like a Kraken called from the depths of the sea, one which flips on its head what we think we know in an effort to get us to believe something different and, as a result, to make us question what’s real at all.
For years we’ve generally trusted, sort of, our pollsters. There are enough of them out there to provide balance, so it’s easy to see the ridiculous outliers, the ones that are less than statistically solid. Those that are reputable have rarely been outrageously wrong, and have often been quietly correct. Gallup, for example has a nice history of their performance in previous presidential races, and whenever they’ve shown a gap larger than the statistical margin of error, they’ve been right—except for that one Dewey-Truman debacle.
I did say “generally trusted,” however. Polls have also been wrong. A recent study out of Fordham University shows that in 2008 Obama’s predicted margin of victory was overstated by, on average, about 1.4 percentage points. And when the polls have been well within the margin of error, then it’s pretty much a crapshoot. Gallup had Ford a point up on Carter, for example; Carter won by two. They also had George W. Bush up two on Gore, who actually won the popular vote by half a point.
As of today, Romney is down by six in Gallup’s poll and five in Fox’s (but just one in Rasmussen’s). In key swing states—and it’s all about the electoral college, as we know—the picture is similar, though sometimes slightly more challenging for Mitt. Ohio—considered a must-win for Romney—shows Obama up by seven (Fox), eight (Washington Post), or ten (CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac). Even the Florida polls shows Obama up in eight out of ten polls, half showing leads bigger than the margin of error.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe this race is over quite yet. There are three debates ahead of us and nearly six weeks of events—including job reports and unemployment numbers—ahead of us. But as things sit right now, the contest definitely leans blue.
Apparently, some people just can’t have that. For these people, the thought that Obama might be pulling away, that Romney may have some serious catching up to do, can’t possibly be reality because, if that really is the reality, it would mean that the country really isn’t what they’ve been trying so hard to convince us it is, an overwhelmingly conservative majority being snookered by a small group of elites with a socialist agenda.
Well… can’t have that now, can we? So the alternative reality must be written, and quickly. And it has.
The polls are gamed, we’re now being told. Oversampled with Democrats, the questions jiggered, the results amplified by leftist media sheep who are in the bag for the incumbent. Forget the fact that traditionally conservative outlets like Gallup and Fox show the same kinds of numbers (though, in fairness, Rasmussen has it much closer), and forget the fact that everybody takes these things with several large grains of salt. The simple idea that loss might be on the horizon has created such a rabid case of cognitive dissonance that there is only one answer that will keep the cumulative heads of the ultra-right from exploding all over their microphones.
None of this should surprise us, not really. The right-wing machinery has long practiced the building of coalitions around a desired meme, and this is no different. Constant, too, is the reinforcement of the right-as-victim story, a subtle us-and-them wedge driven regularly into any conceivable gap. (And let’s not forget that there must always be a them; it is the agar in which far right-wing paranoia grows…) What is perhaps most intriguing, though, is watching the story emerge, in whole cloth, practically overnight. While the modus operandi is terribly familiar—develop a talking point and wait for the echo—it has never seemed quite so coordinated, so planned (at least to me) as it has this time. It’s as if I had woken up one morning into this alternate reality, a place where suddenly every single right-wing talking head was saying exactly the same thing. There was no build up, no hint it was coming. One day the polls were just the polls and the next they were part of some sinister plot.
And why would the plot have emerged? What could possibly be the nefarious purpose for this nationwide, multi-entity plan in which disparate entities first skew, and then sell, these poll results? Apparently that’s obvious—at least to the skew spewers. It’s to create a despondent Republican electorate, to make us think it’s over, that there’s no reason for even bothering to head out on election day and vote for the man who has already been declared the loser. But don’t believe it, they say. The polls are lies. It’s part of a plot.
The scariest part of all is the feeling that we—you and I—are being set up for an even more nefarious narrative, one that points to a stolen election where the Democrats won through manipulating a passive electorate. That narrative sets us up for even more polarization, more divisiveness, more stalemates over the next four years.
Frankly, I think polls are amusing and interesting, good for some dinner-table banter, but pretty meaningless until just a few days before the election, the time when a lot of undecideds will un-undecide. So I don’t worry too much about trusting the polls or the pollsters. But I sure don’t trust the right wing pundits and their hastily (if efficiently) constructed reality. These stories are built on poison. The real manipulation isn’t what is or isn’t going on with the polls. The real manipulation is the puppet-like string pulling that’s already underway, setting us up for more anger and hatred if the ultra-right wing doesn’t get what it wants.
That’s an alternate reality we should all want to avoid.