Living in Different Worlds

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no-one is entitled to their own facts.”

The above statement, although the hoariest of political cliches, is nonetheless wise. Political debates are only legitimate or useful if they are based on a shared understanding of what has actually occurred in the world. For example: should marginal income tax rates be higher or lower than they are today? This is a question that honorable people can answer in entirely different ways, but the conversation only has merit if everyone has a shared underlying understanding of the empirical effects of taxation.

Needless to say, we are a very long way from a place in which such dispassionate and respectful debates are possible. And the situation is only getting worse. We may not be far from the day when claiming “2 + 2=4” is seen as a stalking horse for the tech left conspiracy, or observing that “3x3=9” is merely a tactic to obscure the rise of the alt-right.

I thought about this the other day, when reading David French’s column “Mueller’s Investigation Won’t Shake Trump’s Base.” French, a strong conservative Republican who lives in Tennessee, is resolute in his opposition to President Trump. Most of his friends and neighbors, and the people he worships with at church, strongly support the President. So French has a birds-eye view on the reactions within Trump country to the first indictments issued by Special Counsel Mueller, of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. The dominant reactions in these quarters: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.”

It’s worth taking each of these in turn. “Fake news,” of course, is now an all-purpose slur against anything that somebody does not like — even when it is very well-sourced and documented. While it is certainly true that journalists get things wrong, “fake news” is not about holding people to account but about suppressing freedom of the press. This is why much less sexy terms, such as “disinformation,” are needed — they are harder to co-opt.

That’s my view, of course. To a Trump supporter, the entire fact of Mueller’s investigation is “fake news” because the real villains are the Democrats. If you declare something to be illegitimate at the outset — such as an independent Special Counsel’s investigation — then there is no reason to ever take it seriously. This is the function of “the other side is worse.” Whatever the President’s team may have done with the Russians, in this telling it can never be anything nearly as bad as what those Democrats are always up to.

So there we are — two political ships in the night, never treating each other with respect and usually interacting via angry memes and hashtags. It’s pretty grim out there. For every conservative who thinks the Mueller indictments are cooked up nonsense, there’s a liberal who thinks these indictments will lead to immediate impeachment. The truth is somewhere in the middle, of course. The indictments have a lot of facts behind them, which courts will not ignore even if the President’s supporters do. But the indictments do not signal the imminent end of the Trump administration — simply the next phase in an investigation whose outcome nobody can currently predict. That’s a less emotionally satisfying analysis, no doubt, but it is the truth.

Ahh, “truth.” That old thing. Who needs it anyway?

Well, we all do. If our democracy is to survive as something worth respecting and defending, citizens of all political persuasions will need to rise up to defend the value of facts and evidence. This battle may already be lost in our hyper-partisan age, but it is still worth waging nonetheless.