A new poll put Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Alabama, up against Judge Roy Moore. But buried in the poll is a finding that ricocheted through liberal Twitter on Sunday: 29 percent of Alabamians say the allegations that Moore pursued a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old make them more likely to vote for him. Among self-identified Christian evangelicals, it’s 37 percent.
It’s worth treating this skeptically. The question was, “Given the allegations that have come out about Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct against four underage women, are you more or less likely to support him as a result of these allegations?” There’s no option to answer, “I don’t believe the allegations against Roy Moore,” though that’s clearly the dominant position among Moore’s defenders.
So the 29 percent telling pollsters the allegations increased their enthusiasm for Moore aren’t saying, “Huzzah, finally a pedophile candidate!” They’re saying, “Your fake news won’t destroy a good man.” Dinesh D’Souza is a bad joke these days, but he expresses the underlying sentiment pithily:
I was lukewarm on Roy Moore until the last-minute smear. Now we must elect him to show that the @washingtonpost sleaze attack failed— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) November 12, 2017
Human beings are designed for group living. Our brains are built for maintaining our status in a social hierarchy. It isn’t surprising that we bend over backward to believe the best of our allies, to reject attacks against members of our in-group.
The problem is the definition of that in-group. For many Republicans, the organs of American journalism have become the out-group, the enemy. It’s easy to disbelieve the Washington Post because the Washington Post is #FakeNews — even the president of the United States says so!
Which is all to say that the poll doesn’t reflect the moral depravity of Moore’s supporters, but the “epistemic crisis” Vox’s David Roberts describes in this essay:
The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.
The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.
The world is too vast for any of us to possess much knowledge firsthand. The process of informing oneself is almost entirely a process of choosing whom to believe. For decades, conservatives have been working to persuade Americans that the mainstream media is the opposition, that they’re hostile, that they’re lying. Those attacks have risen both in pitch and frequency since Trump took office. Those attacks have, for a significant percentage of the population, worked.
A poll like this is implicitly posing a question: Do you believe the Washington Post, with its decades of hard-won credibility, its numerous sources, and its adherence to the standards of journalism? Or do you believe Moore? Few of us have the time or capability to investigate the story for ourselves, and so we have to choose. And given what Alabama’s conservatives have heard about the mainstream media for years, is it any wonder some of them choose Moore?
The conclusion of Roberts’s essay is grim, but here, it is apt:
The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy, and to place a measure of shared trust in institutions meant to vouchsafe evidence and accuracy. Without that basic agreement, without common arbiters, there can be no end to dispute.
If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices. There is no longer any settling such arguments. The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy, and to place a measure of shared trust in institutions meant to vouchsafe evidence and accuracy. Without that basic agreement, without common arbiters, there can be no end to dispute.