We have a crisis of credulity in this country. We’ve become a nation of dupes. The inability of far too many Americans to separate fact from fantasy, and the people who are eager to take advantage of that failure, are the root of the rot in our country.
The consequences, long evident, should now be obvious to anyone who hasn’t abandoned all reason. The country reeled in shock last week as a mob, fueled by falsehoods, attacked the U.S. Capitol, terrorized public officials and disrupted their constitutional duty, destroyed taxpayers’ property and left five people dead.
Yes, they were egged on by a president who has spewed lies without consequence throughout his term. They were enabled by the president’s apologists, some of whom are only now trying to salvage their own tattered credibility by condemning the president’s words and actions.
But Trump didn’t invent this problem. The assault on the Capitol was only the latest evidence of the cancer that has metastasized through our country. Those who have forsaken fact have also abandoned science, leaving our entire population far too vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Donald Trump will leave office, one way or another. But the decay he fomented and accelerated will continue to fester, with increasingly dire effects, unless we do something about it.
A friend sent me this passage from a column by Timothy Snyder in the New York Times:
“Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.”
Some have chosen to focus on election reform as a way to restore confidence among Americans. In Iowa, Republican legislative leaders (who overwhelmingly won elections across the state), are talking about clamping down on “rogue” county election officials, tightening absentee ballot regulations and revisiting the recount process.
Nationally, various voices are calling for changes ranging from adjusting or abolishing the Electoral College, ending gerrymandering, or even making voting mandatory.
Some of these may be wonderful ideas (ending gerrymandering) and some are far-fetched (mandatory voting). But none of them will restore confidence in our democratic process as long as a powerful demagogue can shout that the system is rigged and more than a quarter of American citizens believe it.
We can’t begin to solve the myriad of critical problems facing our country without an agreement on a shared set of facts. This will not be easy or quick, and I can’t pretend to have all the answers. But we need to start somewhere, and here are some suggestions:
- A renewed priority on civics education, for children and adults. If one in four Americans can’t name the three branches of government, as a 2016 survey showed, how can we begin to agree on how government is supposed to work?
- Media education and reform: We used to teach 4th-graders about the difference between news and opinion. These days, too many media outlets have replaced news with opinion and viewers can’t discern one from the other. Some news media outlets, particularly cable networks that have matched their reports to a certain political ideology, bear responsibility. We need to educate consumers to evaluate the trustworthiness of news sources and strengthen community journalism.
- Voter education: Most of this needs to happen at the state level. Start by insisting that any change in election laws is accompanied by a serious financial commitment to voter education.
- Supporting education: Some of the anti-information age has grown out of a backlash against public education. Antipathy toward teachers’ unions and taxes has eroded our K-12 and higher education systems. A public that is not only uneducated by indoctrinated to distrust education is ripe for manipulation.
- Social media reform: Kicking the president off Twitter when he’s about to leave office is like trying to muzzle a T-Rex with a ribbon of toilet paper. But it’s a start. There’s a difference between censorship and denying a forum to those who use it to spread dangerous lies. We need to enforce responsibility and accountability in these ultra-powerful media outlets.
- Personal responsibility and accountability for allies: This is last on my far-from-comprehensive list, but it’s the most important. In our hyper-polarized climate, calling out political opponents may make us feel good but it contributes little to the search for solutions. In the periods between elections, we have to insist on higher standards for our allies, not just our foes. Each of us is responsible for making sure our communication, on social media and elsewhere, is factual. We need to polish our own glass houses before we heave boulders at the neighbors’.
I’m sure others will have even better ideas, and I’d love to hear them. If those of us who are tired of the vitriol and the misinformation would commit to doing something about it, we could start healing our country. We can send the liars packing by committing ourselves to the truth. Let’s not get fooled again.