If you’ve found yourself growing frustrated at the “facts neutral” quality of debate about important public policies, you’re not alone. Many of us share your frustration. While principled disagreement about policies is vital in a democracy, the debate in the U.S. has increasingly become not about policy or even facts – but narratives and fiction. Great swaths of the voting public are being inspired not by real events, but by fakery – outrage over policies that never existed (think: the Affordable Care Act’s “death panels,” fear and anger over things that never happened (that Bowling Green massacre).
The stakes here couldn’t be higher. Take this story from CNN that analyzed the claims made in a televised debate between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz over the future of The Affordable Care Act. By CNN’s count, of four claims made by Sanders to defend Obamacare and three made by Cruz to repeal it, finds 3 of Sanders 4 claims were supported by facts, with claim labeled an exaggeration (regarding the percent of Americans who report that they can’t afford the drugs prescribed to them by their doctor). As for Cruz? 0 for 3. All his assertions were found to be contradicted by the facts, CNN said.
Now the Trump Administration and Republicans might claim media bias by CNN – sidestepping the question of whether the statements made by Cruz were, in fact, falsehoods and attacking the messenger (the free press) instead.
Dangerous stuff. But, as this Foreign Affairs article notes: part of a larger trend in public life in the U.S.: the increasing skepticism about expertise of any sort – a willingness to believe that there is not meaningful difference between experts and laymen – that all opinions hold equal value.
By way of example, the FA article talks about a test by Public Policy Polling, which asked a sample of Democratic and Republican primary voters about their feelings about plans to bomb the country of Agrabah. From the article:
Nearly a third of Republican respondents said they would, versus 13 percent who opposed the idea. Democratic preferences were roughly reversed; 36 percent were opposed, and 19 percent were in favor. Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s the fictional country in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Liberals crowed that the poll showed Republicans’ aggressive tendencies. Conservatives countered that it showed Democrats’ reflexive pacifism. Experts in national security couldn’t fail to notice that 43 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats polled had an actual, defined view on bombing a place in a cartoon.
Their point? That our public discourse is frequently driven by opinions that are uniformed – at best- and manufactured, at worst. The precondition? A fertile ground of ignorance.
It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.
This isn’t the same thing as the traditional American distaste for intellectuals and know-it-alls. I’m a professor, and I get it: most people don’t like professors. And I’m used to people disagreeing with me on lots of things. Principled, informed arguments are a sign of intellectual health and vitality in a democracy. I’m worried because we no longer have those kinds of arguments, just angry shouting matches.
Check out the full article over at Foreign Affairs: How America Lost Faith in Expertise | Foreign Affairs