Obamaphones and Misinformation

There are a couple of grafs in a recent NYT article that sum up our current civic information environment. From a story about Trump voters being surprised Trump is cutting their benefits comes this gem:

Moreno was sitting at a table with his boss, Rocky Payton, the factory’s general manager, and Amy Saum, the human resources manager. All said they had voted for Trump, and all were bewildered that he wanted to cut funds that channel people into good manufacturing jobs.

“There’s a lot of wasteful spending, so cut other places,” Moreno said.

Payton suggested that if the government wants to cut budgets, it should target “Obama phones” provided to low-income Americans.

The “Obama Phone” is an old chain email and Facebook legend that has gotten an occasional boost from Fox News. It’s not a myth — there is a kernel of truth to it. Phone companies have since the 1980s charged a fee that subsidizes phone coverage for the poor — typically those at or just above the poverty line. For the past ten years, that has included options to cover a very basic amount of cell phone usage. The idea is that like heat or water, basic phone service is a necessity in the modern world, and should be subsidized. It comes out of a tradition that actually subsidized poor white regions more than anything else.

There’s a few things here to note:

  • The program was established under Ronald Reagan in 1984.
  • It expanded into cell phones under George W. Bush.
  • It benefits all people at or near poverty.
  • No tax dollars are spent on the program.
  • The program does not subsidize the cell phones, it merely offers free basic phone service to poor customers.

As most presidents since Ronald Reagan have understood, modern people need phones — they need them to call 911, schedule meetings with social services, look for work, and keep in touch with caregivers. It was unproblematic for a long while. It was not a partisan issue. We subsidize a lot of things for the poor in this country — heat, electricity, rent. Phones are a piece of that. Have been for 30 years.

And then “Obamaphone” happened. When Obama became president, like so many things the program became racialized through the use of false chain emails. Here’s one picked up by Politifact in 2009, which they rated “mostly false”:

“I had a former employee call me earlier today inquiring about a job, and at the end of the conversation he gave me his phone number,” the e-mail said. “I asked the former employee if this was a new cell phone number and he told me yes this was his ‘Obama phone’… TAX PAYER MONEY IS BEING REDISTRIBUTED TO WELFARE RECIPIENTS FOR FREE CELL PHONES.”

The lifeline program is big — it’s a couple billion dollars overall. Still, it’s not funded by the government, but by that $2.50 cent or so charge you’ve seen on your bill for decades. Run through the misinformation engine of the internet and talk radio, however, it becomes a major reason for the deficit, and creates a script of white victimization even when voters find their own programs cut by the guy for whom they voted. Their perception, egged on by chain email, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, Facebook, and Fox News commentators is that while workforce development programs for white people are being cut, out-of-work inner city black folks are chatting up their friends on free phones given to them by the government because they are on welfare.

So bizarrely, the cutting of the programs the white working class is receiving just reinforces a sense a white victimization, which strengthens, not weakens, their allegiance to a President Trump.

This may be good politics for the Republicans, but it makes it impossible for anyone (including Republicans) to govern. Why? Because the entire worldview of the voting public rests on lies which strengthen political identity at the expense of keeping voters out of touch with reality. So despite net immigration from Mexico being negative, crime being at historic lows, terrorist violence being a fraction of what it was in the 1970s, voters who follow misinformation on the right live in a different factual universe, immune to reality.

Proposing rational solutions to voter problems in such an environment is as impossible as a modern doctor trying to propose medical solutions to a 16th century patient who believes health is powered by the humors, or psychological solutions to someone who believes that clinical depression is the result of demonic possession. Solutions exist, but to understand and approve them requires the acceptance of a known body of facts. Currently those known facts are so tied up with issues of identity that policy knowledge is close to useless.

And before the left gets too haughty about alternate universes — my sense is in the past couple months the Left is starting to catch up with this alternate-reality building. And as with the Republicans, that might be good politics, but it creates a situation where governing is impossible, because voter perceptions of reality are so warped that their expectations are ridiculous.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. It’s not entirely new — I know that people have believed ridiculous things for a long time (since the beginning of time, really). But the level of belief — the sheer scale and coherence of the alternate world average people are constructing — feels new to me in my lifetime. It’s not just that people believe in the Obamaphone. It’s that 90% of what people believe about politics is Obamaphone-level junk news. I don’t know how you quantify that, but I wish someone would try.

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