Thursday, September 15, 2016

Feelings vs. Facts in Politics

"Feelings, not facts, are what matters in this sort of campaigning. Their opponents' disbelief validates the us-versus-them mindset that outsider candidates thrive on." That sad observation comes from the pages of the September 10-16 issue of The Economist. But it could easily have come from the pen or the lips of any honest observer of our current politics - or, more broadly, any honest observer of our culture in the decades since therapeutic values displaced truth from its traditional position of primacy in civilized societies.

Of course, in our private lives people often modify or circumvent the truth to avoid unnecessarily insulting or hurting someone's feelings.  Generally speaking, the desire to avoid gratuitous insults or hurting other people's feelings is a commendable desire. Obviously, no one should ever take personal pleasure in insulting or hurting anyone's feelings or should aspire to do so. If acknowledging the facts and telling the truth has that unhappy result, we naturally weigh all the factors and try to balance different outcomes with multiple considerations in view.

But that has to do with our private individual lives, where the key word is unnecessarily. In a political campaign, it is precisely truth and facts which are so necessary, if in fact voters are to be able to make informed and wise decisions on which the future of the country - and even the world - will rest. Such decisions will be well informed and wiser to the extent that they transcend the limits of feelings. Unnecessarily hurting anyone's feelings always remains undesirable, but the calculus of what is necessary shifts in favor of telling the truth when the public good is at stake - even if, in our contemporary cultural context, truth will perhaps no longer be recognized as a common category by those who inhabit their own separate information silo where facts are pre-determined by their feelings.

An interesting illustration of this is the ridiculous media frenzy about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's recent "basket of deplorables" remark. What she now so famously - or infamously - said was:

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here; I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas, as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Now, if I were a candidate, heariing myself say "grossly generalistic" might have caused me to pause before going any farther. Could, perhaps, the same or a similar point be made more precisely, less "grossly generalistic"? Couldn't she simply have said some or many of her opponent's supporters are deplorable while some or many of her opponent's supporters are people "we have to understand and empathize with as well"? Obviously from a factual perspective the gross generalization here was to measure the two "baskets" as equal halves. To propose a precise number - or a percentage - easily risks inaccuracy and opens one's larger argument up to greater criticism. That possibility would have been avoided simply by saying "some" or "many" instead of "half."

But, not satisfied with criticizing her for saying "half," many commentators have gone wildly critical of her for having supposedly insulted voters - as if her opponent hadn't been doing that all year! Or, more to the point, as if voters were coddled college students huddling in "safe spaces" because they are too fragile to hear anything (either true or false) that might possibly hurt their feelings - or the feelings of even a few of them!

Largely lost in such fulminations is the substantive issue of whether or not the claim is true. Are some of her opponent's supporters racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it? And are some of her opponent's supporters people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change? 

Prescinding from numbers and percentages, does anyone seriously doubt that this is an arguably factual description of a notable part of the contemporary electorate? Haven't we been reading and listening to such analyses from all sorts of commentators from all over the political spectrum for the greater part of a year? Any intelligent analysis of the present state of American - and especially Republican party - politics has to recognize the reality of both these constituencies and consider their implications for American politics going forward.

It is one thing for the Trump campaign - as a campaign strategy - to feign umbrage at the ostensible insult to the feelings of some of his supporters. It is quite another thing for analysts and commentators to continue our disastrous descent into the primacy of feelings over facts.

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