Noonan’s revealing summation of her thought process was this: “Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us? Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.” Thus is the post-fact worldview of today’s GOP boiled down to its essence. It assumes that any “data on paper” must be distorted, and yet doesn’t look at what is in front of its very own eyes either. Otherwise, Noonan might have wondered if the neighborhood in Florida with Romney signs, not Obama ones, was not representative of either Florida or the country but was instead a white enclave. Otherwise, Noonan’s fellow conservative honchos might not have taken until November 6, 2012, to recognize that you can’t alienate every minority group in the country (blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays)—not to mention the majority group, women—and hope to win a national election. It’s not as if these rapidly changing demographics have been classified information. Bill O’Reilly’s astonished Election Night revelation that “the white Establishment is now the minority” was almost pathetic in its naïveté. Next to him, Rove, and Noonan, even Pat Buchanan was ahead of the curve.
The rude jolt administered by the election does not mean that the GOP will now depart from its faith-based view of reality—though it will surely heed Laura Ingraham’s postelection call for changing “the language of dealing with Latinos.” (Marco Rubio—¡Él habla español!—is already suiting up to lead the karaoke.) No sooner did Obama win reelection than Charles Krauthammer laid down the new party line for denying reality, asserting that the president had “no mandate” despite his large victory in the Electoral College and his clear-cut margin in the popular vote (a victory not achieved by modern presidents as varied as JFK in 1960 and George W. Bush in 2000). Two days after the election, Rove was already blaming the defeat in part on “the anonymous New York Times headline writer” who supposedly twisted Romney’s suicidal stand on the auto-industry bailout and the “hotel employee with a cell-phone camera” who had the gall to capture Romney’s candid take on the “47 percent.”
Nor, for all the panicked Republican talk about trying to make the party more inclusive and rational, is there any evidence that the GOP base wants to retreat a whit, whether on immigration or gay marriage or reproductive rights or the reinstatement of Jim Crow–era roadblocks to voting in states like Florida and Ohio. Or that any Republican leaders with actual power (as opposed to the out-of-office Jeb Bush) want to, either. The right is taking solace from exit-poll findings that more Americans still label themselves conservative than liberal and still think government does too much. A moderate putsch led by Olympia Snowe in exile, or David Frum, David Brooks, and Michael Gerson from op-ed pages, or Meghan McCain on Twitter, is not going to get very far.
But that’s the Republicans’ plight. The country has a larger problem—“intellectual nihilism,” as the writer Noam Scheiber recently labeled it. Since 9/11, often but not always under the right’s aegis, truth has been destabilized in America. The Bush administration’s contempt for what it dismissed as the “reality-based community” was vindicated when it successfully ginned up a war by convincing Americans that the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Our susceptibility to elaborate, beautifully wrought myths remains intact—whether we’re being spun by politicians, captains of finance pumping up a bubble, or sports heroes like Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno. The news business, which we once counted on to vet hoaxes and fictions, is now so insecure about its existential future that it was cowed to some extent by the Scarboroughs, Noonans, and Roves, with most of the networks, not just Fox, ignoring the statistical data of Silver and others and instead predicting a long, nail-biting Election Night. (In reality, the election was called for Obama at 11:12 p.m. EST on NBC, just twelve minutes after it had been in 2008.) Our remaining journalistic institutions have even outsourced what used to be the very core of their craft, fact-checking, to surrogates relegated to gimmicky sidebars (awarding Pinocchios and “pants on fire”). The fact-checkers have predictably become partisan targets, only further destabilizing the whole notion of what is meant by “news.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan might be surprised to learn that he is now remembered most for his oft-repeated maxim that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Yet today most Americans do see themselves as entitled to their own facts, with one of our two major political parties setting a powerful example. For all the hand-wringing about Washington’s chronic dysfunction and lack of bipartisanship, it may be the wholesale denial of reality by the opposition and its fellow travelers that is the biggest obstacle to our country moving forward under a much-empowered Barack Obama in his second term. If truth can’t command a mandate, no one can.
This article has been updated since its original publication.