Clinton versus Trump. The political establishment versus the anti-establishment. Democracy versus plutocracy. These are just a few of the phrases that have been used to describe the 2016 Presidential Election. And while these descriptors make good headlines and incite feelings in social media comment threads, they largely ignore perhaps the most important aspect of this election.
We’re not just voting for candidates. We’re not just voting for ideology. We’re voting for “reality.”
In terms of politics, the question of what is real seems to have hit an apex during this presidential election. Rudy Giuliani stated that in the “eight years before [President Barack] Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attacks in the United States,” adding that “they all started when Clinton and Obama got into office.” Not only is this blatantly wrong, but it’s disgusting that Giuliani was the one to say it, as he was the Mayor of New York City when the September 11th terrorist attacks happened — less than eight years before President Obama took office. It’s mind-blowing to even consider the possibility that Giuliani actually believes that statement to be truthful, but it’s worse to consider that he doesn’t and has attempted to manipulate the realities of potential voters in making that comment.
At the end of the Republican National Convention, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich got into a verbal spar with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota about crime rates:
“ALISYN CAMEROTA: Violent crime is down. The economy is ticking up.
NEWT GINGRICH: It is not down in the biggest cities.
CAMEROTA: Violent crime, murder rate is down. It is down.
GINGRICH: Then how come it’s up in Chicago and up in Baltimore and up in Washington?
CAMEROTA: There are pockets where certainly we are not tackling murder.
GINGRICH: Your national capital, your third biggest city —
CAMEROTA: But violent crime across the country is down.
GINGRICH: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.
CAMEROTA: But it is. We are safer and it is down.
GINGRICH: No, that’s just your view.
CAMEROTA: It is a fact. These are the national FBI facts.
GINGRICH: But what I said is also a fact… The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.
CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.
GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.
CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.
GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”
Gingrich’s comments insinuate that even though, nationally, violent crime rates are down, and have been decreasing since the early 1990s, the fact they are up in Baltimore, D.C., and Chicago mean that violent crime rates are up in general. That doesn’t make a lick of sense. That statement can’t even be made with elaborate leaps in logic. It cannot be substantiated, in any way. Yet, Gingrich says it and too many people believe it.
Sure, some people don’t think violent crime is down, but their view is enabled by ignorance and Gingrich, “as a political candidate” will “go with how people feel” and indulge their ignorance. He’ll qualify their ignorance and feed their biases, despite these “feelings” being blatantly, unconscionably wrong.
It’s not just the conservatives who aren’t running for President manipulating reality and peddling it to others. Donald Trump’s entire campaign is seeded in a distorted understanding of what is real. He’s commented that President Obama literally created ISIS and as far as we know, he’s still a birther. He regularly comments on how great a President he would be, even though he’s rumored to have tried more than once to outsource the day-to-day of being President to whoever else was on his ticket. Trump believes he’ll win, even though he’s placed the blame on voters in several states if he loses. Trump’s campaign is hollow wordplay, but people believe it. He qualifies the realities of people who are out of touch with the facts. I can’t say whether or not Trump actually believes the snake oil he’s selling, but much like with Giuliani and Gingrich, it’s worse to consider that he doesn’t and is just manipulating what is real for the purpose of political gain.
It’s worse if he’s selfishly and deliberately feeding the ignorance present in targeted voters.
But it’s not like conservatives have exclusive rights to reality distortion, even during this presidential election. Liberal candidates and commentators have distorted the truth as well.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s scorecard with the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers at Politifact. At the time of this writing, only about half of the claims she has made are considered true or mostly true, while the other half verges into half-truths, falsehoods, and outright lies. She’s embellished job growth under the Obama Administration, used an outdated gains figure to justify increasing taxes on the wealthy, and claimed her campaign platform includes the best investment in good-paying jobs since World War II. Each of these claims were half-truths. She has outright lied about such things as Trump’s brand not producing anything in the United States, she’s exaggerated the approaches to education that the prospective Vice-President’s have taken during their respective tenures as governor, and has tried to assassinate Donald Trump’s candidacy by claiming his rhetoric will be used by ISIS for recruitment.
Bernie Sanders is complicit in factual manipulation as well. Again, using Politifact as the source, he also ventures into half-truths, falsehoods, and lies on almost half of the claims of which he has been checked (at the time of this writing). His claim that a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour would reduce the usage of services like food stamps and housing benefits by over $7.6 billion per year — even though such a minimum wage hike has never been studied before — is a “mostly false” statement which renders his claims to mere conjecture. Sanders spoke about his campaign’s willingness to release his tax returns, for transparency’s sake, but did not approach the issue with the same diligence as other campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s. He’s spoken ill of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, claiming the agreement could cost 448,000 American jobs and even though that is an estimate, it’s a high one and not the only one out there. This statement was rated “half true,” because it neglected to mention other estimates, but that didn’t stop Bernie’s legions from pouncing on that figure to qualify their opposition to the TPP and cement their opposition to Hillary Clinton.
This isn’t to say that Clinton and Sanders don’t tell the truth. They do, at a staggeringly higher frequency than their conservative rivals, but neither or them are beyond exaggerated figures and points, even if it’s for political posturing.
A common-enough-to-be-included criticism of Hillary Clinton perpetuated by the ignorant is that she is a Republican in Democrat clothing. She does resemble a Republican — from the era before Republicans jumped the shark and cast Ted McGinley in their political sitcom. How easily we forget that once upon a time, Republicans were a party that had some progressive ideas. Richard Nixon established Planned Parenthood, for example. But almost like it were in the same vain as “the Democrats being responsible for Jim Crow laws,” we forget that modern party ideologies don’t resemble their counterparts from decades past. Yet, this misconception is perpetuated, held by some as a hyper-partisan trump card in a debate over the efficacy of political ideology.
The Democrats of today are not the Democrats of yesteryear, just as the Republicans of today are not their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
In John Oliver’s coverage of the Republican National Convention, he remarked on Gingrich’s “feelings are facts” statement:
“It’s worth taking just a moment to seriously consider what Gingrich is really saying there, because think about it, I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. What Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts.”
For a comedian on premium cable, Oliver makes a valid point. Politicians do create feelings. They stand in front of us as representatives of our beliefs, champions of our moral attitudes. They represent the nation we want. They are more than just flesh and bone looking to influence policy. They are our sociopolitical surrogates. Of course they influence our emotions.
It’s this influence that piggybacks the harmful effects of modern American politics. When a Ted Cruz or a Mike Huckabee, or really any openly Christian candidate, says “religion is under attack” in the United States, the evangelical communities rally around them. These parties have introduced an existential threat that speaks to the hearts of these constituents. Conversely, when efforts to change established policy are defeated by a group of people to whom another group of people are ideologically opposed, the victory is celebrated and politicians on the “victorious” side are quick to reinforce those feelings.
Trump has done this with his base. He has reinforced their beliefs, taken their hearts into his hands and soothed their anxiety. This is why he is still a viable candidate for the White House, even though he has spent the last year-and-a-half being, well, Donald Trump.
It’s been well-documented that Trump’s entire campaign has been, in all practical terms, rooted in Donald Trump’s reality, which is one he apparently shares with a large number of people. That’s why he is the most delusional candidate out of them all. But that doesn’t mean he’s the only candidate or commentator who has been manipulating the truth, whether for political points or through legitimate belief, during this presidential election. Hyper-partisanship has been on the rise in American politics over the last several election cycles. American democracy has become less about compromise and more about “my way or the highway” political posturing. After all, that mentality is how Ted Cruz managed to shut down the government in 2013.
It’s right versus left. Republican versus Democrat. Reality A versus Reality B. Even though some can argue that our reality is colored by our biases (anyone who accidentally stumbled into the first day of an Intro to Philosophy course has heard that), there are objective truths out there. To deny these objective truths in favor of personal beliefs — whether it’s that Islamic terrorist attacks didn’t happen in the United States until Barack Obama’s presidency, or that the violent crime rate is up nationwide, or that President Obama straight-up created ISIS, or that Donald Trump’s candidacy is being used as an ISIS recruiting tool, or that the TPP will kill almost a half-billion American jobs — is not only intellectually dishonest, but also potentially dangerous to society.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson once tweeted:
If your Personal Beliefs deny what’s objectively true about the world, then they're more accurately called Personal Delusions
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) September 13, 2015
Our votes in November will not just be a reflection of our politics, they will reflect what we believe reality to be.
I suppose it’s fitting one of the contenders for this coveted office was a reality TV star.
Featured image by DonkeyHotey, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.