What happens to us if facts don’t matter anymore?
More than picking who to vote for, that’s the most important question of election season. Because, as the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump intensifies, the election is no longer about who to vote for—but who to believe.
For something so simple, facts are the same thing they’ve always been: the objective, honest bits of information that help us make decisions. Facts underpin our choices every day. If you’re wondering whether to splurge on that milkshake with 450 calories, you’re using a fact to inform your purchase.
Facts are also the fuel for our nation’s operating system—democracy. Voting, in effect, means that everyone gets to make decisions together. But when voters lack basic facts about what they’re deciding, they become misled and misinformed. And as a result, without facts, our future is more likely to take a nosedive.
REJECTING FACTS ON THE GLOBAL STAGE
This is troubling, global phenomenon in politics. Around the world, elected officials are discovering that they won’t be held accountable for the numbers or promises they offer on the campaign trail. Politicians have always been stereotyped as saying one thing to win an election, and then another thing once they win. But today, more politicians are discovering that there’s little retribution for doing just that.
Take last year’s hotly contested vote in Israel. On the eve of the election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu locked up right-wing voters by proclaiming that he would stop Palestinians from establishing an independent state. Days after eking out a narrow victory, Netanyahu made a complete reversal, claiming that his “comments were misunderstood.”
Or consider the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union. The leader of the Leave Campaign, Nigel Farage, promised that an independent UK would invest £350 million pounds in their national healthcare system. Mere hours after his side won, Farage backtracked, saying, “I would never have made that claim.” (He’s since quit politics altogether, noting that “I’ve done my bit”despite plunging the E.U. and global economy into upheaval).
In each case, fact-checkers were calling a five-alarm fire. Plenty of reliable media outlets warned voters that the politicians’ promises were either impossible to fulfill, or just plain dangerous. But, because 2016 is the Year That Facts Ceased To Matter, these sirens went largely unheard.
A FACT-FREE PRESIDENTIAL RACE
This phenomenon is looming over the race for the White House—and it’s not encouraging for Hillary Clinton.
Recently, Trump delivered a scorched-earth speech that called out Clinton’s flaws. Though entertaining, Trump blazed new ground by demonstrating a cavalier revulsion to facts. His arguments contained so many falsehoods that it took 12 journalists to sift through all the misleading claims.
The reaction was more predictable: a bevy of outlets called out his lies (with the New York Times describing Trump’s speech as “rife with distortion”). Yet, while it may have contributed to Trump’s disastrous month, his speech, chock-full of lies, appears to have had little effect on his poll numbers.
In the past, a single flub could cost someone an election. Today, Trump has proven that bombast and insults generate more votes than substance and policies. But it doesn’t just reflect the kindergarten-ization of this election season. More troubling, it signals the collapse of a political system that we’ve counted on for more than a century.
OUR CRUMBLING SYSTEM
Americans spend a lot of time trying to figure out which people we can entrust with our hard choices. Once we elect these people, we hope they’re informed on issues that matter, so they can make decisions with confidence. At the very least, we hope they know what they’re talking about, so that voters are informed on the issues.
Sure, elected officials are busy, but an ecosystem exists to support them. There are staffers who devote their days to understanding complex issues; outside experts who draft policy proposals; and lobbyists who represent the interests of business and advocacy groups. In theory, all of these individuals parse through a daily cyclone of positions—helping the best ideas bubble to the top.
But in recent years, that system has crumbled. In Congress, there are not enough staffers to manage all details behind huge decisions—and those that do are often underpaid and inexperienced. Once serving as independent voices, outside experts increasingly work at partisan think-tanks that approach issues through the prism of ideology, not clear-eyed analysis. And lobbyists with the most cash wield the loudest voices. All of it drowns out the best ideas.
Meanwhile, you can’t blame cable TV—a profit-driven enterprise with a public service mission—for chasing advertising dollars at the expense of educational content. Social media magnifies the effect. Because we’re more likely to follow like-minded individuals online, our social networks reinforce our existing views.
It not only means that we’re less informed. We’re also less receptive to new ideas, and less likely to change our minds. And in a system where voters are asking to evaluate their choices and pick a side, elections are no longer about thoughtful decisions—but entertainment value.
MAKING FACTS GREAT AGAIN
All of this adds up to a paralyzed system—one where voters feel powerless. Is it any surprise that skepticism is sky-high at a time where there’s more money in politics than ever, while Congress is doing less than ever? Or that swing voters—independents who can be swayed by the best arguments—are vanishing?
Polarization and groupthink rarely leads to harmony and progress. Cordoning off our votes by regularly supporting a party (“I’m a Republican for life!”) is one thing. Cordoning off our minds (“I don’t trust mainstream media!”) is far more dangerous.
So, let’s start by admitting that we need facts.
Let’s admit that it’s easy to demonize those who think differently, grew up differently, or came from different places. Let’s admit it’s fun to castigate opponents with blunt, insulting, and surface-level takedowns. And let’s admit that applying labels, like “racist,” or “socialist,” or “job-killer,” is more fun than reading a 10-page policy manifesto and having an informed opinion.
But all of it is dangerous, because it means fewer voters understand what they’re voting on. (After all, UK Google searches for “What is the E.U.?” spiked shortly after the nation voted to leave it.)
It’s not on the media—the facts are a Twitter scroll away. It’s on all of us as neighbors, colleagues, friends, and, above all, voters. It’s on us to exercise our brains a bit. It’s on us to look at what’s bluster and what’s truth. And by doing it, we can—for many elections to come—make facts sexy again.
All of us—no matter what party we support—will benefit from knowing what we’re talking about. Because if we want to get to a brighter future, we better know where our leaders are taking us.
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