Tribal Political Discourse Part 3: The Assault On the Truth Ends in a Sad, Strange Place

Stephen Rockwell • 5 May 2019
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"..And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

               “That is not it at all,

               That is not what I meant, at all.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

Have you ever lived in a dictatorship?  I have and it feels strange for someone who group up in a democratic republic. There are almost always two realities that people live in.  One reality is similar to the reality I know where people live their lives expressing their thoughts freely.  The other less familiar reality is beyond the line where free speech is drawn, expressing thoughts about the royal family.  Fealty to the autocrat or the royal family comes almost second nature.  Praise in the form of a love of a parent is often expressed. Criticism is either projected onto some other source for the problem or delivered with a double entendre that could easily be explained away as referencing some thing other than the dictatorship. Indeed the Chinese living under the Communist Party have become quite adept at this double meaning speak on social media.  Where is truth in all of these leaps of logic and word games?  Truth can purposefully difficult to ascertain with controlled narratives by autocrats and loyal subjects who have been conditioned to deprioritize truth to the point where its pursuit has lost much value.  

The Diminishing Importance of Truth in American political life.

The American Press has nearly always had a muckracking strain going back to the founding of the Republic. The Progressive Era ushered in a new professionalization of journalism with standards for truth-seeking and truth-telling as we would recognize them today.  The same generations that valued good government, relatively more equal economic outcomes, eliminated de jure racial segregation also created a journalism industry committed to getting the story right, challenging those in power for answers, and pursuing an investigative path in order to ascertain the truth.  These public services are widely viewed as essential elements to the functioning of a democracy.

All of politics is filled with the stretching of truth and the presentation of facts and arguments beneficial to your side of the argument.  A free press referees such discourse, fact checking and challenging leaders and those who aspire to leadership.  As mass media arose, progressive era sensibilities ensured that there would be rules to the road for such fair play and truth seeking.  In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published the "Fairness Doctrine," which called for two important principles for those who held licenses to broadcast on public airwaves"

(1) that every licensee devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance; and

(2) that in doing so, [the broadcaster must be] fair – that is, [the broadcaster] must affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented.


The personal attack rule stated that when personal attacks were made on individuals involved in public issues, the broadcaster had to, within one week of the broadcast, notify the person attacked, provide him with a copy of the broadcast (either script or tape), and allow him an opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities.

The political editorial rule required that when a broadcaster endorsed a particular political candidate, the broadcaster was required to provide the other qualified candidates for the same office (or their representatives) the opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities.

(Congressional Research Service)

Why did we lose these principles to truth seeking?

We lost these principles and practices for a number of reasons:

  1. A move away from good government/journalism - as political ideology became the over-riding impetus of political life, the scorched earth political discourse (mostly though not exclusively from the Right) meant many were willing to bust the social norms necessary for good government and journalism to exist. 
  2. Reagan's FCC ended the Fairness Doctrine - This move away from valuing balanced journalism came directly from Reagan's FCC which did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
  3. Cable TV not beholden to the Fairness Doctrine - Fox News was created a couple of years later.  As a cable entity, they would have likely not been held to the Fairness Doctrine, but they could have felt pressure from other credible media sources who were participating in such processes, especially those around endorsing candidates and making political attacks.
  4. Rise of internet social media - Distributed media and information sources creates the space to say anything and to quickly share unverified or blatantly false content. 

Where Do We Find Ourselves in Relationship to Truth?

Al Gore wrote a book called the Assault on Reason in which he described our current sad state of political discourse and the disregard of science and rational thought in our politics.  He was in some ways decrying his victimization by the blowhards of conservative talk radio or the yellow journalism of Fox News that confronted him whether in his failed Presidential bid or in his efforts to convince climate skeptics of the science behind climate change.  The Fox Newsification of a third of the electorate set the stage for a large group of Americans to deprioritize truth to maintain ideological and theological position that fails to hold up to the scrutiny of truth.  Trump laid a claim on this audience demanding that in many cases they sacrifice long-held conservative values, in addition to forgoing a commitment to the truth, all for allegiance to him personally.  

While he assault on truth didn't start with Donald Trump, his personalization of its adherents is new as is the scale and scope of his disregard for the truth The Washington Post noted last week that Trump has lied an astounding 10,000 times in his Presidency.  His followers seem immune to the constant churn of lies big and small.  While some lies may seem inconsequential, the assault on truth matters, whether about his inauguration crowd-size or his most claim that doctors are committing infanticide by killing live babies when speaking about abortion.  Folks are being asked to believe what their very eyes are telling them is untrue.  If you can convince the public to do so, you have created the fertile ground for an autocracy.  

Indeed, the hardcore Trump supporters exhibit the very same phenomenon that I witnessed in the dictatorship.  They will not speak ill of him.  They compromise themselves, their integrity, and their own truth.  How many choose this path and how many of us are willing to fight these attacks on truth with vigor over a sustained period of time will determine how the republic moves forward, and whether we will in fact maintain our democratic nature.  If we falter, we will live in a sad, strange place that hardly resembles democracy, where we trade our integrity and ability to speak freely.  Living in a world of lies to support a dictator, we will be left to say only to ourselves.

               “That is not it at all,

               That is not what I meant, at all.”


Read Part 2 of this series here:

Politics #democracy #truth