Their Own Facts

When someone is propagating falsehoods about a matter of public debate, someone else will often say, "You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts." In other words, we can only have a reasonable debate if we agree on what the facts are. We may disagree about which facts are more important than others, but if you believe, say, that the Affordable Care Act establishes "death panels" before which seniors and the disabled have to beg for their lives, and I assert that the act does no such thing, we won't be able to have a fruitful discussion about whether the ACA is a good thing until we can get past the factual disagreement. Without a common set of facts, we can't come to conclusions, because all we will do is argue about what's true.

This is a long-standing problem in politics, American and otherwise. When we look, however, at the most widespread factual inaccuracies that pervade politics today, there is one common thread: Almost all of them redound to the benefit of the right. Some are recent, and some have been around for decades. Some, like the "death panel" lie, spread because of an intentional effort to deceive the public. Others bubbled up gradually, without anyone making an explicit plea for people to believe something false. Almost all of them, though, put a thumb on the scale for conservatives.

The first thing that came to your mind when I raised this issue was probably the ideas held by people whose hatred of Barack Obama burns with such an intensity that nothing can disabuse them of the notion that the president is The Other, alien in birth and creed. According to a recent CNN poll, 41 percent of Republicans said Obama was "probably not" or "definitely not" born in the United States; a recent Pew poll found that 31 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim, a figure that has gone up, not down, since he has been in office. When Republican officials are asked about these falsehoods, they often smile knowingly, then offer a half-hearted endorsement of the truth, as Mitch McConnell did recently ("The president says he's a Christian. I take him at his word"), leaving all possibilities open.

But the crazy ideas about the president's lineage are a sideshow. As we come to the end of a campaign in which the size and activities of government are the primary focus, Republicans find an already strong wind at their back boosted by a variety of false ideas about government.

For as long as researchers have been asking about it, Americans have expressed a jumble of contradictory feelings about government. They say they want government to be smaller, yet if you ask them about programs one by one, they support spending more on almost everything government actually does. There are some exceptions, like foreign aid. This, though, is likely built on the strange yet widespread notion that foreign aid takes up a huge portion of the federal budget; surveys find that if you ask Americans how much of the budget is taken up by foreign aid, the median estimate will be around 20 percent -- or 20 times the actual figure. Similarly huge amounts are believed to be spent on "welfare," while the actual spending for that program (now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF) is likewise less than 1 percent of the federal budget. In addition, most people think that the majority of welfare recipients are black, which is also false.

It may well be that if you think a particular program is a wasteful expense on people who don't deserve it -- foreigners and the poor being just two suspect classes -- you'll assume that we're blowing huge amounts of money on it. When you support something government does, you'll classify it differently, or even tell yourself it doesn't count as government at all (this is the classic "Tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare!" problem). People are very good at defining the benefits they get as not really "government." In one study, 43 percent of Pell grant recipients and 40 percent of Medicare recipients told researchers they had never used a government social program. So you can drink from government's cup until your belly is full, all while proclaiming with a deluded sincerity that you want government to get out of your way.

With one party proclaiming its ideological opposition to government and the other largely afraid to make an explicit case in government's favor, these kinds of misunderstandings about government's size and role persist. Put alongside the more ideologically driven misperceptions of the moment -- the unpopular bank bailouts and the stimulus are one and the same, Obama has raised taxes (in fact, the stimulus contained tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans), or the Affordable Care Act does all kinds of heinous things -- and you have the latest incarnation of a perpetual problem for Democrats. And it's not as if just telling people the truth will fix things: Some Research shows that when people are invested in their false beliefs, explaining the truth causes them to hold even tighter to what they want to be true.

In the swirling informational miasma of today's media, it's often hard to figure out what's true and what's false, particularly when there are so many sources of "news" that evince little concern about facts. It's possible to be partisan and skeptical at the same time, but too often, people's baloney detectors are brought out only when the other side is talking. For instance, when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle tells voters in an ad that her opponent Harry Reid "actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters," one would hope that even her supporters would say, "That can't possibly be true" (it isn't, in case you were wondering). But alas, that isn't something we can count on.

We live in a country that made a smash best seller out of The Secret, a book that tells people if they think really hard about something they want, like a new pair of Manolo Blahniks, the universe's vibrations will send it their way. And only four in 10 of us "believe" in evolution. A well-functioning democracy would seem to require citizens not only to be at least marginally informed but willing to agree that certain things are true, certain things are false, and once we determine which is which, we can move on to discussing how to proceed. Whether that spirit ever characterized our democracy is doubtful. It certainly isn't true today.

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