The Reality-Free Election

by | Jun 20, 2016 | Opinion | Comments

If there is one popular political axiom in recent times that has garnered unequivocal bipartisan support, while at the same time being laughably disregarded in action, it’s the words of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

“Everyone is entitled to his (or her) own opinion, but not his (or her) own facts.”

An unbiased observer looking at the political environment over the course of this season’s presidential primary campaign would note that the exact opposite attitude has been a defining characteristic underlying this enigma of an election. Everyone, it seems, has their own set of facts – their own form of reality.

Any seasoned political historian, operative or pundit would be quick to note that elections have been spin zones of distortion, exaggeration and empty rhetoric since the dawn of democracy – but this cycle is different. This cycle, it seems, is reality-free.

To demonstrate how far reaching the trend toward a fact-free political diet is shaping this election season, it helps to identify some of the fundamental narratives in this campaign via often repeated quotes:

Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment. The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”
Donald Trump

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Donald Trump

“It (Obamacare) is the biggest job-killer in this country.”
Ted Cruz

“Small businesses (are) going out of business in record numbers.”
Ted Cruz

“The (election) system is rigged. I see it now, 100%. And not just on our side…”
Donald Trump

“The middle class bailed out Wall Street…”
Bernie Sanders

“It was allowed” (referring to her use of a private email server for official business)
Hillary Clinton

All of the above quotes share two common threads: they are verifiably false and they are repeated often on the campaign trail.

Reality distortion is not a new phenomenon in politics, the incumbent party has always been attacked on the current state of affairs by their opponents; and an election free from hyperbole, spin and oversimplification would be an even more noteworthy development than the one being addressed in this article. However, given the context of an election being waged during an age of easily accessible information, why do these thematic falsehoods still resonate?

 

Ostrich Syndrome

In times of peril or distress, the Ostrich sticks its head in the sand to create it’s own more serine reality – it’s a kind of coping mechanism. In the age of instant gratification, seemingly limitless consumption choices and effortless access to information, humans have adapted two similar strategies in the political arena – confirmation bias and delegitimizing data.

Confirmation bias is the propensity to seek out data that confirms or supports a previously held belief while disregarding or rejecting information that conflicts those beliefs. This innate bias is endemic on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. It knows no ideological boundaries because it is a part of the human condition.

There are evolutionary upsides to the confirmation bias; it’s the force that allows risk takers and innovators to peruse their goals without regard to overwhelming odds; it provides individuals with a sense of certainty and assurance that may otherwise not exist in an uncertain world.

Where confirmation bias should have no place and provides no real benefit is in the arena of politics.

Media conglomerates are keenly aware of the existence of such a bias, and have perfected business models to satisfy the desire of partisan consumers. For every credible, reasonably objective outlet like CNN, PBS or NPR, there are an overwhelming number of purposefully bias outlets like Fox News, MSNBC and The Young Turks. For every fact checking organization like Politifact, there are countless sources of misinformation or distortion like The Blaze, ThinkProgress and Breitbart.

In fact, according to Alexia Global Traffic rankings, the most widely credited tracker of website popularity, out of the top 10 most trafficked political-focused websites in the United States, only 2 are not regarded as overtly partisan.

The internet, it seems, has become the sand upon which American voters have decided to stick our collective heads into. We have, in effect, rejected reality and replaced it with our own… on purpose.

 

______ can’t be trusted!

These trends do not exist in a vacuum either; and it is no coincidence that the rise of always available, easily accessible, vaguely credible but highly comforting opposition-view-free sources coincides with the rise of populist resentment and a reality free election. Embracing this bias has actually an ongoing theme throughout the primary season; the “establishment” can’t be trusted.

The problem with such a broad and oversimplified sentiment is that it undermines the value of otherwise credible sources who provide verifiable data, uphold journalistic and/or academic standards, provide relevant context within stories, and make their best effort to report events/trends in a manner that allows the reader to reach their own conclusions. The tendency to disregard unfavorable data even extends now to historically authoritative sources like the Congressional Budget Office, the US Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, independent academic institutions, scientific journals, etc.

Such institutions are now commonly neglected, ignored, overlooked, and delegitimized.

Do you think the economic growth and unemployment rates are worse now than they were in 2009, statistics be damned? No problem. Just label the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an independent agency of the federal government, as “Obama’s Labor Department.”

Don’t agree with the scientific consensus on climate change? No big deal, a quick Google search will direct you to plenty of “skeptic” websites that claim it is a hoax. They even have an oil-funded competing climate model or two published in a scientific sounding source masquerading as an academic journal that you can cite for argument’s sake.

This specific phenomenon is new.

In years past, leaders on both the left and the right accepted the validity of data provided through expert channels and authoritative sources. Given the amount of publicly available information accessible through official or highly qualified sources, politicians have always found ways to cherry pick facts that fit their narrative or help make a political point. Those times seem quaint now.

It is this delegitimizing of sources, and the undeniable anti-intellectualism that permeates the message of these populist calls for rejecting empirical information, that is a true threat to the long term political health of our democratic system. Democracy relies on established gatekeepers to inform citizens on issues of public importance. How would such a system work when the gatekeepers themselves are undermined and/or made irrelevant?

It is curious to note that this troubling trend is gaining prominence concurrently with the rise of fact checking organizations who have made it their mission to hold politicians accountable when their “truth” doesn’t align with reality. The duality of these two opposing political developments germinating simultaneously is a tragic comedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Can a democracy continue to exist when enormous groups of voters can’t agree on the fundamental facts surrounding any given issue? I suppose we’ll find out.