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Can opinion polls be used to measure the growing irrationality and delusional thinking in American politics? Here’s a discussion of how it can be done.

In recent months not only Democrats but many other Americans as well have become increasingly dismayed by the growing irrationality and even downright delusional thinking that appears to be taking hold among many conservatives and Republicans.

The most recent evidence of this trend was a September poll of New Jersey voters that not only showed 33% of self-described conservatives accepting the notion that Obama was not born in the United States but 18% also agreeing with the statement that he is “the Anti-Christ.” The appearance of this view in a northern industrial state like New Jersey indicates that these kinds of beliefs can no longer be dismissed as geographic peculiarities of rural areas or the South rather than as a significant component of modern American conservatism.

Despite the concern, however, there has actually been little serious discussion of how opinion polls might be used to track the growth of genuinely delusional thinking in American politics. It is true that ever since many commentators began using the number of people who accept the “Birther” narrative – that Obama was not actually born in the U.S. – as a shorthand measure of conservative and Republican irrationality there have been similar attempts to demonstrate that an equal number of Democrats believe false “Truther” narratives about the 9/11 attacks. As we will see, however, these discussions have all been based on survey questions that do not accurately distinguish between genuinely delusional beliefs and non-delusional ones and, in the specific case of the “Truther” narratives, also ignore key polling data that does not support the “one extreme equals the other” point of view. As a result, these discussions are useful primarily as ammunition for partisan political debates and not as a basis for serious social analysis.

In contrast, in order to use public opinion polling to seriously attempt to track the growth of delusional thinking in American politics we need to first consider two questions.

1. Can peoples’ responses to survey questions be used to detect psychologically disordered thinking?

2. Can survey questions reliably distinguish between views that are so irrational as to be genuinely “delusional” in a clinical sense and those that are merely extreme or implausible?

The answer to the first question is actually not difficult to determine. In psychology there are a number of “self-report” questionnaires that use people’s response to written questions to gauge characteristics like paranoia, hypochondria and other psychological disorders. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), for example, is widely used and – although far, far from perfect – has been found to be sufficiently predictive for use in a variety of screening and assessment settings.

The key to answering the second question, on the other hand, is to carefully focus attention on beliefs that are genuinely “delusional” -- a term which is defined as “a rigid system of beliefs with which a person is preoccupied and to which the person firmly holds, despite the logical absurdity of the beliefs and a lack of supporting evidence”

The current version of the DSM-IV -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a Delusional Disorder as follows:

“A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

In diagnosing a delusional disorder there are three generally used criteria:

•certainty (held with absolute conviction)

•incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)

•impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)

Obviously there is often not 100% agreement among clinicians in diagnosing a particular delusional disorder, but there is generally a commanding consensus.

With this framework in mind, let’s examine both the “Birther” and the “Truther” narratives:

The basic “Birther” narrative -- when it is applied to an ordinary citizen rather than to a public figure -- is quite clearly delusional. If man walks into a police station asserting that his uncle is not really an American citizen and should immediately be deported -- and if he continues to passionately insist on this belief despite being shown official birth certificates and a complete range of other relevant public documents to the contrary -- he will quite certainly be diagnosed as exhibiting a delusional disorder according to the standards of the DSM-IV.

But when applied to a public political figure, the question is not so clear cut. Many survey respondents will take advantage of a poll to “vent” – to express emotions of fury and loathing for a public figure by endorsing negative statements about him or her without regard to their literal truth or falsity.

In order to minimize this tendency to the greatest degree possible, the only survey questions that should be employed to gauge delusional thinking are those that clearly assert a very specific and explicit conspiracy or other delusional narrative – in the “Birther” case, one such as the following:

Do you believe that Obama was not actually born in the U.S and that members of his campaign systematically falsified or altered birth certificates, newspaper announcements and many other public records in Hawaii and elsewhere in order to conceal the truth.

Someone who agrees with this proposition can reasonably be viewed as expressing a delusional point of view even though he or she might subjectively justify their opinion by saying that “the facts don’t matter at all,” or “I don’t care what the facts are.” A reckless indifference to objective reality of such magnitude is, in and of itself, a diagnostically significant cogitation.

Unfortunately, there are no surveys that have asked “Birther” questions with the necessary degree of unambiguous specificity to clearly isolate this level of genuinely delusional thinking. One can speculate about what proportion of the 42-44% of Republicans who agree with the broadly stated view that “President Obama was not born in the U.S.” in the two latest national polls might also agree with more concretely delusional assertions like the one above, but the answer must await empirical data.

The “Truther” narrative, on the other hand, is substantially more complex than the “Birther” narrative because there are two entirely distinct perspectives regarding the “truth” about 9/11that both depart from the view of loyal Bush and Cheney supporters.

The first is what might be called the Cynthia McKinney/ Far-Left perspective – This holds that 9/11 was actually masterminded by the CIA or some other “black ops” department of the government in order to create a pretext for invading Iraq or -- what is morally equivalent -- that US intelligence and the administration had advanced knowledge of the exact time, date and locations of the planned attacks but deliberately allowed them to proceed unhindered.

The second is what might be called the Richard Clarke/9-11 Commission perspective – This holds that the Administration was appallingly negligent in its handling of the intelligence data at its disposal. The Administration was given more than sufficient prior warning that an attack was imminent (although not the specific time, date and location) and failed to take proper steps that might have avoided it.

The first view can reasonably be defined as delusional because there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support it. The second is emphatically not delusional in any way. Many -- in fact possibly even a majority – of foreign policy experts agree with it to some extent.

To accurately distinguish genuinely delusional beliefs about 9/11 from beliefs that are not delusional requires a carefully constructed four-part survey question, as follows:

“Which of the following do you believe about the attacks on 9/11:

1. Certain elements within the US government actively planned or assisted in some aspects of the attacks.

2. Certain elements within the US government knew precisely when and where the attacks were coming, and could have prevented them, but deliberately let them proceed.

3. The Administration did not know precisely when or where an attack would come but the intelligence agencies provided many warnings that an attack was imminent. The administration was profoundly negligent and did not take steps that might have detected and prevented the attacks.

4. 19 Arab fundamentalists executed an extremely well-planned surprise attack which caught US intelligence and military forces completely off guard.”

The first two propositions can meaningfully be classified as delusional by the criteria of the DSM-IV, the second two cannot.

Unfortunately, none of the survey questions that have been asked about 9/11 approach this level of clarity. Instead, there are three question wordings on which most of the commentary has focused (note: see the update on the sept 23 PPP poll posted at the bottom of this analysis)

1. “Did George W Bush have advanced knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? (Rasmussen -May, 2007)

2. “Is it very likely, somewhat likely or unlikely that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted to United States to go to war in the Middle East.” (Scripts Howard-July 2006)

3.” Is it very likely, somewhat likely or unlikely that some people in the federal government had specific warnings of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, but chose to ignore those warnings?” (Scripts-Howard- November, 2007)

The problem with these question wordings is that none of them categorically distinguish between the Richard Clarke and Cynthia McKinney perspectives. The phrases “had advanced knowledge of the attacks,” “took no action to stop the attacks,” or “chose to ignore the warnings” are all very similar to the widely publicized conclusions of the 9/11 Commission and could easily encourage “venting” by many supporters of the Commission’s conclusions. The three questions all fail to explicitly make the key accusation that the Bush administration had advanced knowledge of the specific time, place and location of the attacks and deliberately let them occur. It is only this very concrete accusation that can properly be interpreted as representing unambiguously delusional thinking.

Some commentators insist however that these questions actually do provide adequate evidence of delusional thinking. They argue in particular that one of the two different variations offered in the second question – that some people in the government might actually have “assisted in the attacks” – is more than sufficient to judge anyone answering the overall question in the affirmative as exhibiting delusional thinking.

As it happens, however, there is another opinion survey – an August 2007 poll by the Zogby organization -- that actually asks very specifically about the “assisted in the attacks” belief. Here is how the survey posed the question:

There are three main schools of thought regarding the 9/11 attacks.

• The first theory is the official story, and maintains that 19 Arab fundamentalists executed a surprise attack which caught US intelligence and military forces off guard.

• The second theory known as “Let It Happen” argues that certain elements in the US government knew the attacks were coming but consciously let them proceed for various political, military and economic motives.

• The third theory “Made It Happen” contends that certain US government elements actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks.

Based upon your knowledge of 9/11 events and their aftermath, which theory are you more likely to agree with?”

This question wording still does not completely distinguish between the Cynthia McKinney and Richard Clark versions of the “Truther” narrative because the wording of the second option does not make it clear if one is suppose to assume that the government had specific knowledge of the exact date, time and location of the attacks or only more general knowledge that an attack was imminent. The use of the phrase “let it happen” is particularly unfortunate because it has been used to describe the Richard Clarke perspective far more often than the Cynthia McKinney perspective.

The most striking fact that emerges from the Zogby survey, however, is the stunningly small number of Democrats who endorse the one unambiguously delusional option. Only 6% of Democrats agreed with the proposition that elements of the U.S. government “actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks.”

This is such a remarkably small percentage that it raises serious doubts that the total number of genuinely “delusional” Democrats (i.e. including also those Democrats who believe the administration had specific knowledge of the time, place and locations of the attacks and did nothing) would come close to approaching the percentage of Republicans who endorse the “Birther” narrative.

There is no way to know the answer to this question until a properly survey with properly designed questions is conducted. In the interim, however, there are three possible hypotheses.

1. That an approximately equal number of Democrats believe in the “actively assisted in the attacks” version and the “administration had specific prior knowledge of the time, place and location” version of a delusional conspiracy narrative. In this case the total number of “delusional” Democrats would be around 12%

2. That a somewhat larger number of Democrats find the second scenario more compelling than the first. If twice as many Democrats turn out to hold the “prior specific knowledge” view than the “assisted in the attacks” view, that would place the total number of “delusional” Democrats at around 18%

3. That the number of Democrats who hold delusional views about 9/11 should be roughly equal to the number of Republican who support the “Birther” narrative. There is, however, no logical reason why two such profoundly different narratives should tend to have equal numbers of supporters. The “Birthers should equal Truthers” hypothesis appears to derive from a more general, esthetically- based symmetry rule which holds that the number of delusional right- wingers and delusional left-wingers should always tend to be similar. There is, however, no body of empirical data in social psychology that supports any such rule nor any theoretical reason within the framework of abnormal psychology that suggests why any such equality should tend to occur.

The number of genuinely delusional Democrats versus Republicans is, of course, important to political commentators as ammunition for partisan and ideological polemics and as a result ambiguous data will continue to be cited as signifying more than it actually does. But the much more important issue that is raised by the growth of delusional thinking in American politics is the danger that such thinking poses to American politics and society.

There is a fundamental difference between a belief that Barack Obama remains privately committed to the radical social philosophy of Saul Alinsky that he studied in his youth, for example, and the belief that he has already signed executive orders initiating the construction of concentration camps for his political opponents. Most Democrats would argue that the first belief is factually incorrect, but it still remains anchored in basic standards of evidence and logic shared by most Americans. The second belief, in contrast, is completely detached from such shared standards and is, in consequence, unambiguously delusional and genuinely dangerous.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1996 was incubated in the hothouse atmosphere of delusional conspiracy narratives circulating among the right-wing militias of the time – “Black Helicopters flying late at night”, “Secret ‘New World Order’ UN troops preparing to invade America under Jewish and communist control”, “Federal ATF agents planning to disarm patriotic Americans and send them to concentration camps.” These delusional rumors and others like them created the climate of hysteria that made the Oklahoma City bombings seem to their perpetrators like rational responses to genuine threats.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings, many right-wing commentators piously asserted that they had never explicitly endorsed these delusional rumors – a claim which was in many cases technically true. Today, however, many of the most widely circulated delusional narratives are overtly promoted by major programs on TV, talk radio and internet media. The resulting climate of hysteria is therefore far more widespread and intense than it was in the 1990’s.

Public opinion polling can play an important role in tracking the spread and growth of genuinely delusional narratives – information that may play a vital role in protecting America from the very real threats of violence and civil unrest that such delusional narratives can create.


Update: Public policy polling has just released a new poll that asks the "truther" question in a substantially more focused way. The question reads "Do you think President Bush intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place because he wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?"

25% of democrats agreed with this statement (while 63% disagreed) which is about what one would expect since the question jumbles together both an explict conspiracy narrative on the one hand and a statement of motive that large numbers of Democrats consider accurate on the other. An unadorned conspiracy statement like the one proposed in the article above (i.e. "Certain elements within the US government knew precisely when and where the attacks were coming, and could have prevented them, but deliberately let them proceed.") would receive less support -- how much less would be very interesting to know.

Oh, by the way, while Democrats rejected the conspiracy narrative around 9/11 by more than 2 to 1 (63% vs 25%), more Republicans said Obama was not born in the U.S. (42%) then said they believe that he was (37%). In consequence, any notion that Democrats and Republicans are equally prone to delusional thinking has a uphill climb.


1 Comment

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This is the most lucid discussion of the meaning of Truther and Birther poll results that I have seen. Good work.

Two additional factors that might be considered:
1. Cult-like behavior. Otherwise normal people can believe remarkably stupid things when under the influence of a cult or peer group. Current Right Wing thinking has a lot of similarity to cult psychology--dependence on captive information sources, discounting of mainstream sources, sense of isolation.

2. Weak testing of abstract ideas. A substantial fraction of the public reports belief in alien abductions, or Professional Wrestling or Angels. But, almost no one takes steps that would be logically required by serious belief in those things. There is no market for anti-flying saucer weapons and no betting pool on WWF RAW wrestling (that I know of). Many people seem to maintain muddled and contradictory beliefs about religion and politics, but think clearly about issues that actually affect them.

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