What Bruce Poliquin’s ear buds tell us about American politics

By now, the story of Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s dash into a bathroom and reemergence with ear buds has become the subject of mocking humor, with editorial cartoons depicting the congressman hiding out to avoid reporters.

But Poliquin’s actions go beyond political comedy, absurdity or timidity.

Poliquin’s ear-budded refusal to divulge his position on Trumpcare until just before he voted for it illuminates broader dynamics about the Republican party today. It’s a revealing metaphor for how many, including national leaders in Congress and the executive branch, have ignored experts and broad public opinion, selectively listening to chosen groups and donors. Extending the metaphor, some sing along with chosen lyrics emanating from their ear buds, shutting out reliable research and spreading misinformation.

Although political rhetoric is not known for its precision, what’s happening now is different from the typical political spin. There’s almost a disdain for data.

These tendencies undercut our democracy, for they undermine a shared evidence-based foundation for understanding what is occurring and how to address our problems. As former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Rep. Bruce Poliquin

Instead of using and disseminating reliable facts, the Trump administration is hiding data that was previously shared with the public, including scientific research paid for by taxpayers. In addition to removing data on the environment, the federal government has disappeared or made less accessible information about workplace safety rules, ethics waivers for top officials, animal welfare abuses and White House visitors. Just months into the Trump presidency, 20 percent of datasets are no longer available on www.data.gov.

Increasingly, Republicans turn away from established knowledge and expertise. There used to be very little difference between Democrats and Republicans about the conclusions of climate scientists regarding of the reality of global climate change. Over time, a narrow gap has widened and Republicans are far more likely to reject climate scientists’ findings.

When it comes to simply describing a policy, instead of discussing the same facts in light of differing values about the role of government, Republican leaders assert clearly false claims. This can be seen when it comes to Trumpcare.

The Congressional Budget Office determined that the initial edition of Trumpcare would lead to 24 million fewer people being covered. Now 10 percent of non-elderly people lack insurance; if the bill passed,19 percent would not be covered. Yet House Speaker Paul Ryan (and materials distributed by the Maine Republican Party) claimed the 24 million were mostly individuals who, after the mandate was eliminated, simply chose not to have insurance. Table 5 of the CBO report shows this is simply false, as 14 million of the 24 million received Medicaid and 7 million had employer insurance. The individual mandate applied to people buying coverage through the exchange, a group of 2 million losing coverage, and the CBO concluded that some of those would not have coverage due to premiums 20 percent higher than if Obamacare continued.

Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins and Poliquin, won’t hold listening sessions or town meetings. And so metaphorical ear buds block constituents who, national polls show are highly likely to oppose Trumpcare because they want health coverage for themselves, their loved ones and the community. In addition, few Americans supported Trump firing FBI Director James Comey. Nearly eight in 10 support an independent investigation into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign but very few Republican office holders seek one.

Certainly Republicans are not the only ones to go down the path of choosing information supporting their views. These are all too human failings. But in this era of serious problems, an unknowledgeable and undisciplined president, and unified party control over Congress and the presidency, the plugging of Republican ears is particularly dangerous.

Moreover, there are differences between parties. As political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it, political polarization is asymmetric. While all partisans are somewhat tribal, Democrats draw from more varied news sources and are less likely to shift their policy positions depending on which party controls the presidency.

Those who plug their ears and sing their own tunes to drown out what they don’t want to hear — wearing metaphorical ear buds — hurt our body politic. This dynamic is dangerous to good policy, democracy and thus to our collective future.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.