On Friday, the Austin-American Statesman ran one of those dreadful space-filling stories that the media seem drawn to like moths to a flame. Staff reporter Jonathan Tilove’s page A1, above the fold story entitled “Why Ebola is a perfect storm for Texas Democrats,” is the print journalism equivalent of the kind of click-bait faux-think pieces that infest websites like Buzzfeed, and that are so nicely satirized by The Onion’s “Clickhole.”
The story, (mostly behind the Stateman’s paywall) is an airy editorial that carries itself aloft on the reductionist B.S. argument that the current Ebola panic is “bad for Democrats” in Texas, all because a patient happened to die of Ebola in Dallas.
This is an example of what happens when reporters who are at a loss to make stories out of the actual news decide to manufacture some news in order to fill column inches. One can easily imagine a journalist spit-balling story ideas in a bull session with a few colleagues. “Oh, if only I could figure out how to squeeze the word ‘Ebola’ into this story of the November 4, 2014 general election. Because Ebola. And Ebola.”
There may well be internal “metrics” that show newspapers with the word “Ebola” on the front page show an X% spike in same-day sales, or that news websites with the word “Ebola” see an increase in page views. Or whatever.
To summarize, Mr. Tilove’s story is built on the general observations of various experts in the until-now invisible academic field of election epidemiology. The article is based most prominently on a gross generalization of findings by John Alford of Rice University, John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Christopher Frederico at the University of Minnesota’s Center For the Study of Political Psychology.
As has been noted in other sources, people who self-identify as conservative are arguably or potentially more likely to be emotionally activated by basal endocrine responses to fear and disgust than are people who self-identify as liberal. To the extent that one can draw conclusions from statistical variations in human responses to stress, conservatives could be said to be slightly less capable of logical reasoning in the face of fear than the general population, and could arguably be appealed to more effectively by fearmongering.
But I suspect that Drs. Alford, Hibbing, Smith, Frederico, and others would be the first to caution against extrapolating from general observations about fine-grade statistical variants in intellectual capacity among voters to any sort of specific predictions about outcomes in particular elections, and for all I know, the people studying the field of political physiology might be unhappy about the way that their research is being portrayed in this news story.
Let’s accept for the sake of argument that conservatives are more prone to being “spooked,” and are, as a group, less capable of rational thought than liberals (As a liberal, nothing makes me happier than being able to cite sociological studies that show liberals really are smarter, more intellectually evolved, and more competent than conservatives, so of course, all this statistical analysis is wonderfully affirming).
Does it follow from this premise that Texas Democrats are in trouble because a West African visitor to Dallas was unlucky enough to have Ebola, and was further unlucky enough to experience the dispiriting crappy health care offered by a Texas hospital? Couldn’t the narrative just as easily been “Texas Democrats Poised to Benefit from Mismanagement of Ebola By Conservative Policymakers?”
An accumulation of unrelated circumstances and facts (even when all these circumstances occur at roughly the same time) does not mean that these circumstances and facts are causally related to each other. An irrational fear of Ebola does not translate into political support for specific Republican candidates in the 2014 election in Texas.
The only reason why Mr. Tilove’s story is a narrative about the “poor hapless Democrats,” is because Mr. Tilove decided to slant the story as a narrative about the “poor hapless Democrats.” The story wears its political assumptions and subjective bias on its sleeve. I could just as easily write a story subtitled, “Fear of spiders, gas station restrooms, and clowns among stupid voters could create backlash against Democrats within blocs of stupid voting groups, experts say.”
In fact, as a useful corrective to Mr. Tilove’s embarrassingly awful feature story, let me redraft it as follows:
CONSERVATIVE VOTERS INFLUENCED BY GAS STATION RESTROOMS
“Disgusting” bathrooms in Dallas, elsewhere, could create backlash against rational voting, expert says
Filthy gas station restrooms are causing particularly dull-witted voters to side with the Republican Party, just weeks before the statewide election.
The tendency among the managers of independently-owned local gas stations to neglect routine maintenance and cleaning is helping feed doubts among particularly obtuse voters about Democratic chances.
The political problem that filthy gas station restrooms pose for Democrats in Texas, and in midterm elections nationally, could be even more fundamental. The story of experiencing a particularly rank bathroom, in which a desperate driver stops at a “mom-n-pop” convenience store, only to be repulsed by the conditions in the rattrap semi-detached shed behind the air pumps, is the quintessential issue more likely to provoke a gut reaction from conservatives than liberals, and draw them to the polls, according to Rice University political scientist John Alford, a cutting edge researcher on the physiology of ideology.
Republican Voters Swayed By Vomit, Diarrhea
“There are two things that conservatives are attuned to more and react to more — signals of threat and signals of disgust — so [filthy gas station restrooms are] a gift to the Republicans in this election that you’ve got exactly those two things dominating the national news,” Alford said. “Every time someone in the news is talking about projectile vomiting and diarrhea, I think, `The Republican vote just went up another half percent.’”
Boo to the Statesman for running an Abbott campaign ad in the guise of a news story.