Truth Defeats Truthiness: Election 2012

I believe that the victory of truth over truthiness is the most important result of the elections last week. The victory is beautifully documented in Frank Rich’s latest piece in New York Magazine. In my judgment, the defeat of truthiness is even more important than the victory of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney and the victory of the Democratic Party over the Republicans, important though these are. A sound relationship between truth and politics will provide for the possibility of American governability and progress, informed by both progressive and conservative insights.

To be sure, on the issues, foreign and domestic, and on various public policies, the differences between the two presidential candidates and their two parties were stark, clearly apparent now as the parties position themselves for the fiscal cliff. Yet, these differences pail in comparison to the importance of basing our political life on factual truths, (as I analyzed here) instead of convenient fictions (fictoids), and on careful principled (of the left and the right) judgments and not the magical ideological thinking offered by market and religious fundamentalists (as I also previously examined) and by various xenophobes and racists (who promise to take their country back).

Stephen Colbert, the great political philosopher and public intellectual, the leading expert on truthiness, disguised as a late night comic, has most clearly illuminated the truth challenge in his regular reports. His tour de force, in this regard, was his address to the White House press corps in George W. Bush’s presence. But now it no longer takes a brave comic genius to highlight the problem. Republican and conservative responses to election polling and results provide the evidence, both negative and positive.

Though the polls clearly predicted an Obama victory, it is noteworthy that the Republican leaders and their advisers really didn’t see the defeat coming. They operated in an ideological bubble, which facts did not penetrate. Now they must (more on their alternative courses in our next post by Aron Hsiao on Monday).

After all objective reports on election night indicated a decisive Obama victory, Romney wouldn’t concede. Karl Rove on Fox News comically refused to acknowledge what Fox News (Fox News!) projected. Before the election, Republican pollsters systematically distorted their election predictions to confirm their desired results. A fact denying normality had become the order of things. The right-wing politicians, and their media enablers, were not simply lying to the public. They were blinded by their own fabrications. There were the fortunate (from my point of view) miscalculations of the campaign, but when it came to science, to climate change, to biology and much more, fact denying had become deadly. Thankfully, there is now sensible resistance, by the population at large and also by conservatives themselves.

As reported by Jonathan Martin at Politico notable young conservatives are now presenting important criticism. Ross Douthat: “What Republicans did so successfully, starting with critiquing the media and then creating our own outlets, became a bubble onto itself.” Ben Domenech: “The right is suffering from an era of on-demand reality.” Such self-criticism is heartening. Perhaps, it will be possible for serious conservative intellectuals and public figures to present positions without the craziness.

Severely conservative Romney continued his ideologically driven, fact-denying, forty-seven percent ways, blaming his defeat on “free gifts” to Obama’s core constituencies, free birth control to single women in college, health care to African-Americans and Latinos, and a special gift to Latinos — the promise of amnesty to children of illegal aliens, “the so-called Dream Act kids.” In the conservative cocoon at Fox, Bill O’Reilly strongly agreed, but it is very interesting to observe many Republicans running away from the remark. Surely political calculation is involved, but it is also a healthy matter that key conservative figures, such as Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, are distancing themselves from the ideological fiction of the society made up of takers and makers, as Paul Ryan has put it.

I wonder, thinking ahead to 2014 and 2016, perhaps there will be a Republican civil war, between the ideologues and the conservatives. I have my hopes, but also my concerns. But at least in this election, those who used facts to mobilize their campaign won over the prisoners of fictoids.

I identify with Barack Obama’s political position, as a centrist wanting to move the center left. I identify with the democratic left because of its long and developing progressive tradition, addressing the problems of inequalities based on class, race, religion, gender, nation and sexual orientation, and because of its critique of the injustices of untrammeled capitalism and its conviction that the present order of things can and should be subjected to critique, its conviction that the way things are is not necessarily the way they must be. For these and other substantive reasons, I am very happy with the election results.

But further and in a less partisan way, I understand that alternative political traditions, broadly understood as conservative, are worthy of respect, especially as they illuminate the importance of learning from experience and highlight the limits of reason. I respect this tradition and have learned from it. I think a healthy modern republic should be informed by it. And, for these reasons, I even have sought to find conservative intellectuals worthy of respect at Deliberately Considered, see here and here. It is a terrible loss that fact-denying, right-wing ideology has prevailed in the Republican Party in recent years, amplified by racist currents during the Obama presidency. But perhaps the tide will now change among conservatives.

Conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, and radical icon, Karl Marx, are important thinkers for me as I try to make sense of the political world, but it is the ambiguous and ambivalent commitments and insights of Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt that make them my primary political teachers. Tocqueville, the ambivalent democrat, highlighted the dangers of mass society as the underside of democracy. (I should post my thoughts on this one of these days.) Arendt more crucially observed the dangers of ideology and emphasized that a common factual base is the ground upon which democracy is built. I sense that the most significant result of this election is that we are moving back to this ground. I hope Fox News craziness, the right-wing entertainment industry, as David Frum is now describing it, is “so yesterday,” or at least no more intimately connected to the Republicans than the Democrats are tied to MSNBC. I can’t tolerate either as a source of news. It worries me that some think of them as such.

This is how I understand my centrist orientation. My primary political commitment is to a free public life, where people with different identities and principles meet between left and right, i.e. in the center. I don’t’ believe in watered down progressive and conservative positions, but a position where there is informed debate. For me, this is the meaning of “the vital center.” I think this election, as truth prevailed over truthiness, and as a principled leader prevailed over one that pretended to be a true-believer, who had a very problematic relationship with factual truth, provides hope for a centrist with leftist commitments.

  • Scott

    One of the most satisfying aspects of Obama’s victory, for me more satisfying than the fact that Obama is still president, is after 4 years of telling the public that a circle was fact a square, those efforts of Republicans, Fox News, and the Koch brothers failed, and failed big time. That they failed though is no big surprise; as Colbert also has said,”Reality has a well known liberal bias.” I look forward to a more sane political atmosphere in the coming years, and the outcome of the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations should be very telling as too whether this optimism is warranted or not.

    Also during the negotiations it will also be important to keep an eye on whether “a free public life, where people with different identities and principles meet between left and right” becomes more predominate, or whether whether there is another return to the contentiousness that surrounded the “Obama Care” negotiations. Will the Tea Party take to the streets in defense of tax cuts for the rich? If indeed there has been a (perhaps forced) return to the middle for Conservatives, then my guess is the answer to that question is no.

  • http://susanais9.spaces.live.com susanai

    Karl Rove was comical at first but imagine how Romney would have been governed if he’d won. The real possibility was America being ruled by Fox proxy. Shuddering thought.