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Race and Beyond: When the Facts No Longer Matter, Democracy Is at Stake

Robert Rector

SOURCE: AP/Evan Vucci

Robert Rector, author of a Heritage Foundation report on immigration amnesty, speaks during a news conference at the Heritage Foundation, Monday, May 6, 2013, in Washington.

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In what might be called something of a policy-political family squabble, the Heritage Foundation crossed signals with fellow conservatives by releasing yesterday a controversial, cost-benefit study related to comprehensive immigration reform. I wish this was a joking matter, but it’s a gravely serious concern.

The newsy tidbit in the conservative think tank’s document isn’t the erroneous attempt to attach a $6.3 trillion price tag to legislation under consideration to allow a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants. Numerous reviewers, including an excellent takedown by The Washington Post’s editorial board, attacked that miscalculation and set the record straight.

As my ThinkProgress colleagues noted, a previous 2006 Heritage report stood in stark contradiction to the one released yesterday. In its earlier study, Heritage visiting fellows Tim Kane and Kirk A. Johnson wrote, “the argument that immigrants harm the American economy should be dismissed out of hand” and urged for a comprehensive immigration bill. “A lopsided, ideological approach that focuses exclusively on border security while ignoring migrant workers (or vice versa) is bound to fail.”

So the top-line message of the latest report isn’t focused on Heritage’s empirical shortcomings and the study’s inaccuracies, but rather that the corrections came so quickly and vehemently from fellow conservatives. It is a point that Think Progress’s Rebecca Leber highlights: “The study stands alone in a field of research that finds legal immigration to be a net plus in tax revenue, education, and higher average wages. As a result many conservatives do not buy Heritage’s findings … ”

But don’t take Leber’s or my word for it. After all, we’re on a perch across town from Heritage, and speaking for myself, I find little to cheer that comes from the other side. Rather, let the right wing speak for itself:

  • Via Twitter, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) complained that the Heritage report “ignores economic benefits.”
  • Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) chief of staff Cesar Conda joined the fray, also via Twitter, arguing the report failed to evaluate the economic impact of immigration reform through “dynamic scoring,” which takes into account a broader array of benefits produced by immigrant workers.
  • Conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, was perhaps the most prominent and outspoken of the critics. He told The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley that the conservative think tank he leads will release its own analysis today—Tuesday—that anticipates growing tax revenues that would cut federal deficits by $2.5 trillion. “It’s very important to recognize that this is a core economic policy decision,” Holtz-Eakin told The Post. “Let’s acknowledge the value” of immigrants to the U.S. economy.

Lest anyone misunderstand, I’m not indulging here in some gleeful schadenfreude over the dissention among conservative thought leaders. Rather, there’s a frighteningly real issue at stake, one that repeatedly has emerged in our stagnant, left versus right debates over public policies.

What is the value of fact-based reality in political debates? All too often, those seeking to sway public opinion—in this case, immigration; but it could just as easily be health reform, gun control, or abortion rights—supply their own set of facts to support their beliefs.

And, in some cases, even when people are confronted with information that calls into question those “facts,” researchers have found that many people just choose to ignore inconvenient truths. In a 2010 paper titled, “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,” Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler at Georgia State University noted a “backfire effect” tends to take place when popularly held beliefs are challenged by corrective facts. The paper documents “several instances of ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question,” the scholars write.

I’m pleased that conservative supporters of immigration reform recognize the value of clearing a path to citizenship, which is vital to our nation’s future. It’s rare and refreshing to hear self-criticism from within conservative circles on this issue. If only they would do that on other issues, say background checks for gun purchases.

But it’s equally frustrating to see how far a small, determined band of right-wingers is willing to go with twisted facts and illogical arguments to support wrong-headed policies. This is the most troubling part about the Heritage report. It gives a lift to willful ignorance to advance its policy objectives.

How can we know whether we’re living in the real world or some Matrix-like alternate reality, where facts as reasonable people understand them actually don’t apply? Worse, what hope is there for immigration reform—or any rational public policy—if what passes for scholarship at Heritage is challenged and yet citizens and their elected lawmakers choose to embrace a gross and calculated misunderstanding of what’s real?

Indeed, if lies and distortions prevail, then democracy can only suffer.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
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Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
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TV: Rachel Rosen
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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here