Lies and the death of political discourse

Behind the Curve – Best Of Enemies (2015)

There’s a political anecdote of which I’m quite fond. It’s about two legislators from the same political party having a conversation. One of them, a seasoned politician, hears the other, a freshman legislator, At one point, the younger man refers to the rival party as “the enemy.” The old man interrupts him and says, “Son, they’re not the enemy. They’re the opposition.”

I don’t know the veracity of this story or the names of the men involved, but I often find myself thinking on it when I look at the current political climate. If politician’s like the old man ever existed, by now they seem to have been completely overrun by the younger legislator’s ilk.

I know that politics has always been a dirty business, but when I look back at the past 8 years I can’t help feel that something has changed for the worse. Almost from the moment Barrack Obama took office, certain people have abused and berated him with a level of ferocity that I can only explain as madness. People called him a socialist and a Muslim. They questioned his citizenship. They drew Hitler mustaches on his face. They questioned whether he “loves” America. And for what? What did Obama actually do to deserve the abuse? He’s just a moderately Left-of-center Democrat.

Barrack Obama, from ABC News
Barrack Obama, from ABC News

To listen to certain people talk, Obama has been the most radical president in our history. But that’s not even close to true. He was actually fairly moderate. Obama didn’t raise taxes for most Americans (despite what the teabaggers claim). He didn’t legalize pot or implement gun control. He didn’t implement universal healthcare. He didn’t break up the too-big-to-fail banks. And despite the vitriol thrown his way by the Right, Obama’s approval rarely sank below 40%.

Compare this with George W. Bush, who started two pointless wars and left office with a dismal 22% approval rating. Did he receive this kind of abuse? I don’t think so. I know that Bush was criticized and mocked (deservedly so), but I don’t think we saw the same level of venom and disrespect during his presidency.

Many people chock this up to good-old-fashioned racism. There’s a lot of merit to that argument, but I don’t think it fully explains the phenomenon. After all, not every Obama critic is a Klansman. There must be something deeper that has changed in American politics.

Let’s analyze it through recent events. We just came through a particularly nasty election. I blame a lot of that on Trump. But Trump merely stoked the flames of resentment; he didn’t create it. The venom existed long before Trump descended that escalator. People were already angry and dissatisfied. But why? The economy was good under Obama. Unemployment was down to 5%. And our military budget was bigger than ever, which you’d think would’ve satisfied the paranoid war hawks on the right.

At least those were the facts as I heard them. Republicans apparently heard something completely different. They claimed that people were losing their jobs constantly. They claimed that the military had been crippled.

How is that possible? Because there is no longer a consensus on facts in American politics. And I blame the Media for that one.

Many Americans still watch cable news to stay informed, and these networks have almost fully abdicated their responsibility to fact check information. Perhaps it began with the Vidal/Buckley debates explored in Best Of Enemies, when news networks first discovered that conflict gets more ratings than dry, fact-based coverage of politics. Today’s news stations are all about conflict and arguing and showmanship. They will point the camera at a politician saying some blatantly false, incendiary statement and not bother to comment on its veracity.

Fox News
Fox News

If there is commentary, you can bet that it’s a shouting match between extremists. The media is not interested in truth. They’re interested in a good fight. So now you will see a leading scientist arguing with a climate change denier with a Bachelor of Arts. Both will present data and call the other’s data erroneous. Both look equally credible. The newscaster will sit between them and take no sides. They don’t want to appear bias.

There’s only one problem with that: it ignores the fact that certain biases are good. We should be bias against non-facts. Some statements are true and others are not. Not every issue has two equally valid sides. There is such a thing as fact, as observable reality. We cannot be stuck forever arguing over data. Arguing not about policy, but about the nature of reality.

People turn on the TV and believe what they see on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News. They say to themselves that it wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t true. The average voter does not have the time and resources to fact-check on the fly. If the political climate is ever going to get better, we need a baseline of facts. We need news outlets with enough balls to exercise editorial authority and call B.S. on blatant lies.


Coming up:

  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28
  • Movie: The Imitation Game (2014) – Monday, December 5
  • Game: Pokemon Go (Niantic, 2016) – Monday, December 12
  • Documentary: We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (2012) – Monday, December 19
  • Wild Card! – Monday, January 30

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.