I yield to no one in my disdain for alternative facts. I’ve been doing what I can from my own little fiefdom to chart a path back to Factville, most recently devoting the debut episode of our new podcast (On the Economy Podcast, co-chaired with Ben Spielberg) to that theme. So consider that bit of street cred as I raise a question stimulated by this interesting, smart read in today’s NYT.
The title—Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying—is obviously hyperbole, and the piece focuses on the interaction of the Trump administration with their hard-right supporters and the alt-right media that closes this dangerous circle. No question, that’s a real problem and the motivation for the work I noted above.
But it is not clear to me how far down this rabbit hole we’ve fallen. The oped talks of a “new, post-factual political culture,” but is this not ultimately a question of numbers? Really, how many people actually don’t care about facts anymore? Did not a majority of jaws drop along with Chuck Todd’s when Kellyanne Conway defended the administration’s alternative facts? What share of the those paying attention believe Trump’s nonsense about the crowds at his inauguration or millions of fraudulent ballots cast against him?
I assure you, I’m not downplaying this problem at all. But attacking the problem requires us to think clearly about its actual nature. Though I don’t have the numbers to answer those questions above, my strong suspicion is that our biggest problem when it comes to facts-on-the-run is not that we—meaning most people—live in a post-factual culture. It’s that our president lives, flourishes, and has a symbiotic relationship with that minority culture.
Obviously, history brims with examples of how a violent, oppressive minority, can take control and cause terrible, even murderous, damage. And history also reveals that this process is facilitated by a feckless, apathetic opposition, a lazy press, an academic and research community too ensconced in their comfortable sinecures to recognize that the game has changed.
Those are the potentially threatening institution failings that allow for the rise of the oppressor. In this regard, there’s hope in what looks like the rise of an extremely energized and nimble opposition, some early evidence that legal checks and balances appear to still be operative, and some clear media willingness to call out lies.
No question, some of us live in a post-fact culture fed by falsehoods designed to keep us fighting among ourselves while empowering a non-representative government. But as the actual popular vote showed, most of us do not. I will continue to try to draw the map back to Factville, but I do not for a moment believe that this is a lonely endeavor. There are way more of us than there are of them.