News & Politics

Ted Cruz Isn't an Idiot, He's Delusional and That's Far More Dangerous

For those who think like Cruz, there is virtually no amount of data, reality checks or facts that can persuade them to give up their false ideas.

Since Ted Cruz first announced his candidacy, much has been made of his chances of winning, his arrogance and his extreme conservative views. But most of the controversy over his candidacy centers on his lying.

It is no surprise to any of us that politicians lie. We generally assume they stretch the truth to get elected, to denigrate their political foes, and to bolster their images. But Cruz may just represent one of the biggest liars in recent history. In fact, he may be a whole new form of political liar. 

The Daily Beast reports that, “Cruz’s Politifact track record for publicly asserted falsehoods is the second-highest among front-runners, totaling 56 percent of all statements they’ve looked at.” And Matthew Rozsa tell us that “Googling ‘Ted Cruz lies’ pulls back an astonishing 7,890,000 results, and on Twitter, the two phrases are basically synonymous.”

The trouble with this angle on Cruz’s misstatements is that it presumes that Cruz is, in fact, lying. But lying depends on the liar knowing that what he is saying is false. Cruz shows no signs of such awareness. As Ann Marie Cox points out in her survey of Cruz’s lies, there’s more going on here than just a politician’s twisting of the truth or a partisan spin on data. She wonders whether it is time to take seriously the idea that he really believes what he is saying. “There are objective falsehoods that show Cruz could just be looking at a different set of data. Other, more telling whoppers show that Cruz isn’t just looking at different data, he’s living in a different universe.”

That different universe is Cruz’s world of misinformation. He doesn’t lie because lying would require that he actually know the truth. And that is what makes Cruz an even greater threat to the health of our democracy than all of his lies put together. Cruz represents a turn in GOP politics where political beliefs operate more like religious fervor than reasoned inference. 

Researchers have long worried about the connections between democracy and public knowledge. For obvious reasons, an informed electorate is a key part of a strong and effective democracy. Voters need to have relevant facts in order to make good choices at the polls. But research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler explains that there is a vast difference between an uninformed public and a misinformed one. An uninformed public is ignorant, but a misinformed one is delusional—and that’s far more dangerous.

This distinction is essential. An uninformed voter can have contact with the truth and learn from it, but a misinformed one already believes an idea that's wrong. Think of Cruz’s delusional comments about climate change, the number of IRS agents, and crime rates rising in areas with stricter gun control laws. Each of these examples indicates a whole new level of political “lying,” since each represents fiercely held beliefs with no basis in fact. This is not a case of simple stupidity. It’s a case of deeply believing something that’s just wrong.

If you care about truth and think it should influence political decisions, this is highly disturbing. But it gets worse. Nyhan and Reifler further suggest that those who hold misinformed beliefs are even less likely to learn from correcting information than those who have no clue.  

That means that for those who think like Cruz, there is virtually no amount of data, reality checks or facts that can persuade the deluded citizen to give up his false ideas. This is the mindset of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and many on the far right. Nyhan and Reifler refer to this as “motivated reasoning.” What they find is that people who are attached to falsehoods perceive any correcting information as partisan and flawed. So conservatives don’t perceive science as information. To them, it’s just a liberal agenda. In other words, they don’t believe the truth.  

Not only do those with false beliefs practice “motivated reasoning,” we also now know that any challenge to their beliefs is likely to backfire. Nyhan and Reifler found that when conservatives who thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were exposed to news stories correcting that view, “the correction backfired.” That is, “conservatives who received a correction telling them that Iraq did not have WMDs were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD than those in the control condition.”  

Exposure to the truth not only failed to adjust their views to reality, it actually made them believe in their false ideas even more strongly. This is why Cruz’s candidacy is really scary. This is not a case of a politician strategically using lies to advance a career; his whole career is dedicated to advancing a political platform built on a delusional view of the world. The catch is that to those who think like Cruz it isn’t delusional, it makes perfect sense. 

Cruz’s misbeliefs are part of a longer story of how the GOP has come to be redefined by a vocal, aggressive, highly visible faction that has decided that any facts that contradict their worldview are merely liberal bias. This is what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” Think back to the lies of Paul Ryan at the 2012 RNC or to Anderson Cooper’s confrontation with Michele Bachmann over her penchant for lying. Recall also the research showing that viewers of Fox News actually know less about the world than people who watch no news of any kind.

But really if we want to peg the rise of a misinformed GOP on a politician we would have to start with the George W. Bush administration.

Back in 2008, we learned the Bush administration made 935 false statements in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Yet today, despite multiple bipartisan reports confirming no WMDs were found, a significant faction of the U.S. public still cling tenaciously to the idea that the war there was just. A recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 40 percent of US citizens still think there were WMDs in Iraq.

But falsehoods are only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem is the emotional attachment to the falsehoods. The new GOP is increasingly connected to a sense of constant threat and a persistent worry that the nation and its values are under attack. When we combine a great distortion of reality with a party politics based on fear and extremism, we threaten the viability of a functional political system. That, of course, was exactly what Cruz did when he led the government shutdown of 2013.

Democrats, too, hold dear to their beliefs. It’s part of human nature to want to resist information that contradicts with the way we see the world. Psychologists call the practice confirmation bias, and define it as the tendency to interpret information in ways that support our preconceptions. And yet, we don’t all resist correction of our false beliefs to the same degree. 

Research suggests there is a vast difference between a liberal’s ability to accept a new take on the world, and a conservative’s. To put it simply, part of what it means to be liberal is to be open-minded. That means liberals are open to information that might change a perception. In contrast, conservatives are defined as resisting change and as emotionally attaching more strongly to their beliefs. What we find with Tea Party politics, though, is a far more extremist version of Republican beliefs than we have ever seen before. Michael Grunwald of Time calls the new GOP an example of “reality-defying extremism and chronic obstructionism and borderline surrealism.”

The poster boy for this extremist, reality-bending faction of the party is Ted Cruz. As the Washington Post reports, “Cruz isn’t [just] running for president—he’s running to be the leader of a new GOP.” And that’s no lie. 

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. She can be found on Twitter at @mcclennen65.