Why American Politics Has Become So Rancorous. Why People Are So Quick To Embrace Fake News
True Believers See People On The Other Side Not As Just Wrong, But As Bad
By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)
Political Choices Are Now Seen As Moral Issues
People are increasingly viewing political positions as moral choices rather than intellectual disputes.
It’s one thing to say that someone who believes in liberal policies or conservative policies is foolish or blind or ignorant, but we’ve gone beyond that.
Ideologues on each side now routinely believe that the people on the other side, because they are on the other side, are dishonest, evil and corrupt.
If you strongly believe that everyone deserves access to medical care then you may view those who want to repeal Obamacare as heartless, greedy people who don’t care if working Americans and their children suffer and die for lack of medical care.
Every time someone on the right applauds deporting an employed, hard-working immigrant who came to the U.S. illegally, people on the left point and say, “That shows you how mean, terrible, and nasty those right-wingers are.”
For people on the left, those on the right are not just wrong, they are mean, selfish, and greedy. They not only support bad policies. They are bad people.
Many on the right view social safety-net taxes as stealing. If that’s how you look at it then to you the people who support government-financed food stamps and Medicaid and Obamacare want to steal your money to give it to losers who are too lazy or too stupid to be able or willing to pay their own way. Who steals your money? Bad people.
When Political Positions Become Either Good Or Evil Democracy Fails
When we demonize people who disagree with our political beliefs, democracy is no longer about policy. At that point the disagreement devolves not merely into “us” and “them” but into a contest between the “good” people against the “bad” people.
Of course, if someone is a bad person in one regard they are probably bad in many ways. Bad people are untrustworthy, dishonest, biased, hypocritical, and corrupt, right?
Bad people are capable of anything. Nothing they say or do can or should be trusted.
Anyone Who Isn’t Against The Bad People Is Also A Bad Person
We’ve always been taught that it’s important for good people to oppose bad people. It’s only a short step to the belief that those who do not oppose the bad people are themselves bad people — you’re either against the bad people or you’re one of the bad people.
Once you decide that those who support a policy you strongly disagree with are bad people, once you view people who hold a contrary opinion to yours as not merely mistaken but evil, you’ve pretty much destroyed any chance for a rational or workable political process.
Doesn’t that match what’s going on in Washington today?
Political Compromise Is Morally Wrong
If I’m morally right and the people who disagree with me are morally wrong and I compromise with them then, to some extent at least, I’m helping the bad people do bad things. I’m making a deal with the devil, and we all know how that always turns out.
Is it any wonder that once the GOP gained control of both houses of Congress it refused to talk to the democrats about health care? If the Republicans had met with the other side, the Democrats would have insisted on concessions and compromises in exchange for their support.
We can’t have that.
But things are even worse than that.
Don’t Listen To Anyone Who Isn’t Already On Your Side
If the “other side” is composed of bad people then they’re going to do lots of bad things then, of course, they’re going to lie.
Not only should you not compromise with the bad people, you shouldn’t even listen to them because whatever they have to say is wrong or a lie or both.
There Are No True Facts, Only Republican Facts And Democratic Facts
A conservative friend recently accused “the left” of having a certain bad tactic. When I asked for proof he responded that all I needed to do was “take a look at MSNBC. CNN. Time mag., NY Times, Wash Post., etc.”
He equated any media that did not support his right-wing position as being part of “the left.” In his mind, any media that wasn’t already on his side was automatically working for the other side and whatever stories it published were part of a left-wing agenda.
I told him that if he was going to label every major media organization in the country except for Fox as being “on the other side” and then categorize news on those media channels by default as being biased, false or misleading he’d already rigged the game.
“No,” I said. “I need evidence. Claiming that ‘the left’ is doing X just because an X story appeared in the NY Times is not good enough.”
He replied that a majority of reporters were Democrats and that therefore the major newspapers and networks were undoubtedly promoting a left-wing agenda.
His thought process was that :
- All people who register as democrats are members of the left wing;
- As members of the left wing they are, by default at least biased if not dishonest, and
- Being biased/dishonest members of the left wing, they are, of course, actively working to promote a left-wing agenda.
I suspect that there are quite a few liberals who have the same attitude about Republican-registered reporters, “the right wing,” and Fox News.
Notice the implications:
- My side is the reasonable/decent/honest center and everyone else is the left/the right.
— (My side is the only reasonable, centrist one. Everyone else holds an extreme position).
- Reporters who are registered members of my party are honest and honorable, but reporters who are registered members of the other party are biased, dishonest and dishonorable.
- Media outlets where a majority of the reporters are members of my party will report fairly and truthfully and those where a majority of the reporters are registered in the other party are biased and untrustworthy.
— (Media controlled by my side is fair and honest and all other media is biased and operates to promote the other side’s agenda).
- News published by media not controlled by members of my party cannot be trusted
— (I only listen to news published by people who I’m sure already agree with me).
We Assume That Bad People Are Guilty Of Bad Things
If everyone not on your side is on the other side, and if the people on the other side are, by definition, bad people, then people who don’t agree with you are bad and capable of anything.
If someone tells you that one of the leaders on the other side did some terrible thing, you’re automatically going to believe it.
If someone posts a story on the Internet claiming that as a boy Hitler had sex with cows or that Ted Bundy cannibalized of his victims, you’d automatically believe it, wouldn’t you?
So, if you really, really, really hate Hillary Clinton and somebody posts a story saying that she was having sex with children in the basement of a pizzeria you’re going to believe it, right?
Enter Fake News.
Why People Believe Fake News
One of the reasons that fake news works is that the people who believe it have zero understanding of how to separate lies from truth. Their stunning ignorance springs from three basic errors:
A belief that
- A motive to do something is proof that the person did do it
- Every accusation is true unless and until the accused proves that it’s false.
- All evidence that an accusation is false should be ignored unless it is absolutely impossible for that evidence to be anything other than true.
All Claims Are True Unless and Until They Are Proven False
Over the history of Anglo-Saxon law every accusation has been deemed to be false unless and until it is proven true. The people who believe fake news have turned this bedrock legal principle on its head.
For them, accusations against “bad people” are true unless and until they’re proven false.
- A person knocks on her neighbor’s door and finds the woman dead on the couch.
- The deceased and her ex-husband had been fighting about his visitation with their child.
- There was a $50,000 insurance policy on the deceased’s life and the ex-husband is still the beneficiary.
The deceased’s sister really hates the ex-husband. Because he’s a bad person and he had a motive, she’s immediately convinced that he did it. She knows that he did it.
The police find a gun, the murder weapon, in a trash can. The ex-husband’s finger prints were not on it.
“He could have wiped them off,” the sister says.
His prints were not on the trash can.
“He could have wiped them off there too.”
No one saw him anywhere in the neighborhood that day.
“He was careful not to be seen.”
The back door was jimmied open and the ex-husband still had his key.
“He could have done that to make it look like a burglary.”
His cell phone shows he was at work.
“He could have left the phone in his office to give a false location.”
His boss testifies that he was at work all day.
“The boss could be lying.”
In the sister’s mind, all that evidence of innocence can be disregarded because it doesn’t make it 100% certain that the husband is innocent. If he might be guilty then he is guilty.
In short, being a bad person and having a motive makes him guilty and the burden of proof is on him to prove that it’s 100% impossible for him to have done it.
This is how people who believe fake news think.
Fake News Starts With An Unproven Claim
The fake news accusation: “Hillary and Bill Clinton are secret pedophiles.”
Someone who hates, hates, hates Hillary Clinton immediately accepts this as true because they believe Hillary is so bad that she would do anything.
If asked for evidence, the accuser says:
“I don’t have any evidence because Hillary and Bill are powerful people and they used their power to cover up their activities.”
The fake-news believer accepts this second unproven claim as justification for the lack of proof of the first unproven claim.
Next, the accuser makes a third unproven claim:
Hillary and Bill were having pedophile sex parties in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington D.C.
With no evidence whatsoever, the fake-news believer is now convinced that Hillary and Bill are pedophiles who had sex parties in the basement of a pizzeria and that there is no evidence of this because they used their political influence to cover up their activities. In other words, it’s true by default.
When challenged, the fake-news believer turns logic on its head and says, “Prove that it didn’t happen.”
I can “prove” anything if you unconditionally accept as true every aspect of the accusation and you automatically reject every piece of evidence showing that the claim is false.
Using that method I can “prove” that you’re a cannibal, an alien masquerading as a human, or Elvis’s brain transplanted into another body.
Explaining Isn’t Fixing
I wish I had a simple fix for this situation. I wish we could solve this problem by merely asking people to stop demonizing those who hold political or economic philosophies that conflict with their own.
It’s not that easy.
For me the path out of this morass is pragmatism. I don’t look at an issue and test it against liberal or conservative dogma. I try to figure out what action, or inaction, in the long run will do more good than harm irrespective of what liberal or conservative orthodoxy demands.
My best response to this problem is to try to convince people to turn their backs on political religions, to become political atheists, to embrace pragmatism instead of conservatism or liberalism.
It’s much easier to view “the other side” as misguided or foolish or just wrong rather than as greedy, mean and corrupt if you construct political policy according to a cost/benefit analysis instead of as a moral choice.
I wish I had a more effective answer than that. I wish I had a silver bullet would convince each side’s True Believers to stop demonizing the other side and just let their political religions go.
– David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)