The war between fact and fallacy in US politics

When a senator excuses an erroneous comment by saying ‘it was not intended to be factual’, where’s the line between reality and fantasy?

Wendy Kaminer

Topics Politics

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Inadvertently, a high-ranking conservative Republican has captured the political zeitgeist. During budget debates earlier this month about reproductive healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, Arizona senator Jon Kyle was caught falsely insisting on the Senate floor that providing abortions is ‘well over 90 per cent of what Planned Parenthood does’.

In fact, as numerous reporters pointed out, over 90 per cent of Planned Parenthood’s work is devoted to preventative health care for women, including pro-life procedures like cancer and cholesterol screenings; only three per cent of its work involves abortion. Never mind, Kyle’s spokesman responded when confronted with actual facts: Kyle’s remark ‘was not intended to be a factual statement’.

What self-respecting satirist could resist exploiting this gaffe? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert pounced. Colbert took to observed, ‘neither Kyle’s original statement nor his press aide’s refutation of it were intended to be factual statements’.

The irony is that the aide’s initial response was essentially factual, or true – certainly much truer than statements offered by Kyle and his Republican colleagues in their crusade to cut all funds to Planned Parenthood. Kyle was not trafficking in facts about the organisation when he attacked it; he was indulging in demagoguery. If his aide had been less honest and more evasive and resorted to the usual, ‘he misspoke’, the joke would have been on women.

I doubt that Jon Kyle’s press person intended to tell the unvarnished truth about his boss, but it’s not hard to imagine why he slipped up and admitted that facts were not the subjects of Kyle’s rant. Political fictions have become respectable, while facts have become irrelevant to policy debates. Facts are confined to increasingly ineffectual wonks, famously derided by a George Bush aide as the ‘reality-based community’. Lies and misstatements are routine and routinely ignored or forgiven, whether they’re highly consequential (like lies about the causes and conduct of war) or merely academic, like fictions about American history. Recently, congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party favourite, falsely suggested that the Founders ended slavery and located the beginning of the revolutionary war in New Hampshire (it began in Massachusetts) with no apparent harm to her credibility among supporters as a constitutionalist and expert on the American revolution.

Occasionally there are costs to high-profile lies, especially if they involve sex scandals (like Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky) or the use of performance-enhancing drugs by high-profile athletes. Former baseball star Barry Bonds has been convicted of obstructing justice for lying about his steroid use, a trivial, victimless crime that preoccupied Congress and federal law enforcement. Generally, there’s an inverse relationship between the importance and complexity of a lie and the likelihood that many pundits or members of the public will understand and care about it; and the lesser risk of lies about important matters of policy or politics is far outweighed by the benefits. Buffoonish reality show host, real estate developer and name licenser Donald Trump has become the favoured presidential candidate among self-identified Republicans (to the consternation of the conservative Republican establishment), thanks partly to his adoption of outlandish conspiracy theories about President Obama’s imaginary foreign birth – conspiracy theories embraced or considered by majorities of registered Republican voters; only 32 per cent of Republicans believe Obama was born in the US.

Misconceptions about the president’s birthplace are obvious examples of falsehoods passing as facts; they seem laughable (and Democrats hope they will ultimately undermine Republican credibility) but they have a corrosive effect on political debate, especially when they’re so widely held. Of course, some percentage of the population will always be guided by irrational biases and beliefs; it’s hard to imagine outré conspiracy theories ever losing their appeal. The trouble is, they seem especially appealing in times of crisis, when they’re likely to be especially destructive.

Popular misconceptions about government spending, taxes and the current economic crisis are obviously worrisome, with major tax and spending battles underway and a showdown looming over raising the debt ceiling. Few people understand our highly complicated and highly consequential tax code. (David Cay Johnston debunks myths about the code in an article not likely to be widely read.) Confusion about federal spending is also common. Generally the public greatly overestimates the small share of the budget represented by foreign aid (a popular target of cuts) and the tiny share enjoyed by National Public Radio, a target of the Republican right. Majorities strongly support Medicare, which contributes significantly to current and projected deficits, at the same time that they prefer cutting government spending to raising taxes.

Or consider misconceptions about Planned Parenthood, which Jon Kyle continues to embrace. (‘If you want an abortion you go to Planned Parenthood and that is what Planned Parenthood does’, according to his amended entry in the Congressional record.) Planned Parenthood has also been smeared as an organisation complicit in sexual trafficking, thanks to a misleading video sting that passed for a factual statement on the right.

On the Democratic left, non-factual statements about campaign finance reforms abound. Some reflect ignorance or misunderstanding of complicated campaign finance legislation and equally complicated systems for funding campaigns. But sometimes, advocates of campaign finance restrictions simply misstate simple facts of which they have every reason to be aware. Recently, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel declared that liberal Democrat Russ Feingold lost his 2010 Senate race because of corporate spending unleashed by the recent Supreme Court decision striking down key provisions of campaign finance laws that restrained corporations. To substantiate this claim she linked to an interview with Feingold in her own magazine in which he directly contradicted her, explicitly stating that he did not lose because of spending unleashed by the Court’s ruling. When I pointed out this bold and shameless misstatement of fact, she repeated it, noting that Feingold’s statement should not be taken at face value: he denied being defeated by corporate spending because he didn’t want to ‘complain’. In other words, vanden Heuvel suggested, Feingold was not intending to make a factual statement.

Like the refusal to believe what is obviously and demonstrably true – that Obama was born in Hawaii – vanden Heuval’s belief that Russ Feingold did not mean what he said quite explicitly about the effect of money on his race testifies to the power of ideology over reason and facts. Crackpot theories about Obama’s foreign birth reflect the belief that this cool and somewhat remote intellectual with an African father and funny foreign name who spent the first years of his life in Indonesia is not one of us; and no number of certified birth certificates will change that belief. Vanden Heuvel’s insistence that Russ Feingold lost his Senate seat because of corporate spending reflects her belief in the evils of the Supreme Court decision allowing independent expenditures by corporations, and no number of contrary statements by Feingold about the reasons for his loss seem likely to change her mind.

Viewing the world according to ideological preconceptions that screen out inconvenient facts is not necessarily cynicism; it’s more like self-delusion. But it enables cynics who knowingly issue highly ideological, fictional statements intended to parade as facts. It cultivates confusion; and the more confused people are, the more easily they’re manipulated and the less influential their values and beliefs will be. They become objects rather than agents of the policies that shape their lives, unwitting participants in the disabling of democracy. That is not intended to be a factual statement; it’s an opinion, but I do believe it to be true.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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