2016 Election Thoughts – Part II (Common Facts)
Common facts? Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late great Senator from New York (whose seat Hillary Clinton was elected to on his retirement in 2000), told us “everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts.” (I wrote about common facts and one other issue in Core Issues about Public Discourse, on July 25, 2015.) Alas, if Senator Moynihan was alive today, he’d know he’d been ignored. Repeatedly.
On Monday, November 7—a different era—Diane Rehm hosted How The U.S. Government Is Supposed To Work And Why Many Think The System Is Broken. Her guests were Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute, E.J. Dionne from the The Brookings Institution and the Washington Post, and Kathleen Parker, who also writes for the Washington Post. Responding to this query from a listener—what are we going to do about people who refuse to accept fact-based information if it does not fit their opinions—Mr. Ornstein said:
I think that’s a very, very strong point. When you live in a place that no longer has a public square, the whole notion of the framers was that you would argue hammer and tong over issues that mattered, but you would do it from a common set of facts. And, you know, I get, I guess almost every week, Diane, somebody who I know well, who’s a thoughtful person, sending me an email they’ve received and saying I can’t believe this is true. And what you realize is that it’s not true. But it sounds so reasonable.
And people send it among their friends and their relatives and so it bolsters it. And you have carefully crafted things that suggest absolute falsehoods. But we know, psychologically, when people begin to believe something, once they believe it, shaking that belief, even with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, becomes extremely difficult. The synapses of the brain work in a different way. So we’re going to have to try to find a way to recreate a public square and we’re going to need a lot of elites. And I think public media is going to be the vehicle that we’ll need here.
One of Mr. Ornstein’s suggestions? “I’m thinking one thing is a shadow Congress made up of former members, across the political spectrum, who aren’t in the middle of the tribal environment … who could do actual debates.”
Norm Ornstein. Highly regarded Congress watcher but … get real! Some old farts will get together in a debating society and, because they’re suddenly reasonable, the country will pay attention? The last few reasonable Republicans in the Congress leave in the next 10 – 20 years. Even with others, though, why will everyone suddenly listen to them? Posting outrageous crap on social media; lots more fun.
We do live in a fact-free world. Education cures ignorance, but it’s a long, slow process. It also costs money, and we’re heading into what will likely by the most anti-education Administration we’ve ever had.
What to do? Work arounds. Candidates for public office can’t count on the truth anymore. (The Wednesday Curator for July 5, 2016 looked at the non-partisan PolitiFact analysis of Trump and Clinton statements. True, mostly true, and half true: Trump, 23%; Clinton, 72%. And she was the liar?) Alas, many claim that those statistics reflect PolitiFact’s bias.
So, candidates will need to find other ways to advance themselves. I don’t do politics, so I don’t have answers. But I know we can’t rely on a shared set of facts. In the entitled world circa 2016, and for the foreseeable future, we can all—each and every one of us—have our own facts.