Is Perception Reality?

It began with an e-mail exchange with Senior Analyst Jamie O’Boyle of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis.

“I assume you saw the Gallup report (Sept. 18) on Democrats driving economic confidence since the Democratic Convention,” O’Boyle’s message began.

It was 6:30 a.m. yesterday when I received both the Gallupreport and Jamie’s e-mail.

Gallup said that “Democrats and, to a lesser degree, independents continue to buoy U.S. economic confidence in September.”

“If there is any doubt that politics can influence economic confidence, one need look no further than this month’s GallupDaily tracking data. Gallup has long documented that Americans’ confidence in the economy, as well as their broader satisfaction with the country’s direction, is colored by the party affiliation of the sitting president.

“This month, Gallup found a dramatic upward shift in Democrats’ and independents’ confidence, starting on opening night of the Democratic National Convention. That could have resulted from positive messages about the economy in prime-time speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Or it could simply reflect the sense of optimism the convention conveyed about the election, making Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents feel generally more upbeat.”

“I find [the data] interesting,” O’Boyle writes, “because the economy is, in large part, a mental construct – if you believe it is good, you spend money, there is more money in circulation, and it gets better. If you don’t believe in it and you don’t spend money, it gets worse. The economy, in a large part, is driven by what we believe it to be.

“So it looks like the Democrats, and some Independents now have a rosier picture of the economy since the convention. Part of this comes from the Democrats’ good job of reminding people where we were when Obama took office. (Joe Biden summarized: ‘Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.’ ”

“But another major factor,” O’Boyle says, “is that the conventions gave people a side-by-side look at the two candidates, their running mates, and their platforms. For Democrats, the worry that this was going to be a close election that they could likely lose vanished. Economic confidence rose. This also implies that simply the idea of a Republican victory is enough to damage the economy. They don’t have to actually do anything; they just have to show up.”

I hastily wrote back: “Perception is reality!” And Jamie quickly corrected.

“Perception is not reality: it is our reality. So, people act on perception as if it is reality. In human systems – stock market, politics – that changes the outcomes of the system. In natural systems such as climate change and evolution, it doesn’t work so well. You can deny it. You can rationalize your belief. It’s still going to happen whether you believe it or not.”

Actually, I meant to say: “Perception can become reality” – as we saw in the Middle East and news interviews where angry Muslims attacked a U.S. consulate and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens due, largely, to a stupid, insulting video that ridiculed Islam that had originated in the U.S. With the circulation of the video on YouTube, many Muslims falsely believe that Americans hate Muslims.

“The thing about perception,” Jamie writes, “is that, once fixed, it can be slow to adapt. A lot of our assumptions are fixed when we first encounter whatever the issue is. Our opinions on what race is and where the problems lie are fixed in our youth. People my age are used to seeing interracial dating but many are still uncomfortable with it. People under 30 don’t know anything else. The national debate on race will change dramatically as the boomers die off and are replaced as opinion leaders.

“Perceptions hang on long after they have ceased to reflect contemporary reality. Democrats used to be the party of segregation; Republicans were the party of Lincoln. That changed but it took decades. Republicans strong suits were business and defense. Now they are visibly losing that distinctive difference to the Democrats. The Republicans may not believe in evolution, but evolution clearly believes in them.”

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