The post-truth era

THE POST-TRUTH ERA…. It’s never been easier for Americans to keep up on current events and public affairs, but the persistent propensity for large swaths of the electorate to believe demonstrable falsehoods remains astounding.

I’m well aware of the structural problems that generated Republican gains in the midterms — high unemployment means huge losses for the incumbent majority. But I’m also inclined to believe that our stunted discourse contributes to an environment in which facts are swiftly rejected.

Much, if not most, of the country believes President Obama raised taxes. And that he signed TARP into law. And that TARP money isn’t being repaid. And that the economy contracted in 2010. And that the stimulus was wasteful and counter-productive. And that this current Congress did less than most. And that the Affordable Care Act constitutes “socialized medicine” and a “government takeover.” And let’s not even get started on the president’s birthplace.

In a historical sense, it’s not at all unusual for propagandists and provocateurs to spread lies, but we live in an era in which it’s almost effortless for ignorance to spread like a cancer — leading more people to believe more nonsense, faster and easier.

Andrew Sullivan had an item on this last week that bears repeating.

It seems to me that the last year or so in America’s political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama’s presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse – the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus – were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran’s regime – and destruction of its legitimacy from within – was portrayed as a function of Obama’s weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform — almost identical to Romney’s, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies — was turned into a socialist government take-over.

Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain — pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I’m exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector’s in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don’t think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies — “death panels,” “out-of-control” spending, “apologies for America” etc. — designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people’s minds in the midst of a brutal recession.

As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, this dynamic encourages more of what we’ve seen of late — when dishonesty is rewarded, we’ll hear more lies, not fewer.

The post-truth era can be disheartening.