Are American voters rational beings? Do they have to be for our democracy to survive?
The Founders worried about these questions, and so, of course, does Al Gore. I ran into him the other day in a place where I see lots of concerned citizens: outside the MSNBC television studios near Capitol Hill.
Gore was there to promote his new book, The Assault on Reason, which is number one on Amazon.
To answer an urgent question first, Gore didn’t look bad. He’s not the svelte Al Gore of old, and why should he be? He’s pushing 60, a grandfather three times over, a best-selling author, accidental movie star and media mini-mogul. He looked pale from the pre-applied pancake makeup. Then again, so did I.
I told him that I had just predicted on TV that he would run for president. He accepted this extremely minor news with his patented, vaguely amused equanimity. You know how he expresses it: with that courtly, slyly smiling nod.
Lying to America?
The former vice president is busy with more pressing matters these days than the mere presidency. He carries an air of philosophical worry; his concern at the moment is not with the environment per se, or with electoral politics for himself, but with what he sees as the collapsing political ecosystem of America.
In The Assault on Reason, he sees nothing less than a nation succumbing to blind stupidity.
Fed a steady diet of fear-inducing, rage-promoting, fact-free television shows (think: The View), we are all too easily lied to and led into disastrous wars by George W. Bush, who himself has only the most tenuous grip on reality, not because he watches a lot of TV (though he is famously addicted to Sports Center), but because he is so lacking in educated curiosity that he doesn’t know that the neocons’ vision of the world – of, say, the flowering of Western democracy in Mesopotamia – is dangerous fantasy.
As we chatted, I offered the thought that emotion in politics can be a good thing. It supplies energy to the never-ending debates that define and inspire us. We’re sort of like a nuclear reactor. “Yes,” he said, “but the facts are the control rods!”
Good point. But the analogy raises more questions than it answers. Who decides what “the facts” are? Will the voters take “the facts” into account even if they are told them? And will our country destroy itself if the voters ignore “the facts?”
What is a fact?
It is a rare thing when epistemology – the philosophical study of how we know what we know about the world – takes center stage in the everyday life of politics.
But that is where we are today. The “war on terror” has led us into a hall of mirrors. We doubt our own national sanity. We have been so consistently lied to that we are no longer sure that we have the capacity to understand the world. Is it a “fact” that there is a worldwide conspiracy of Islamic terrorists dedicated to destroying America? If so, what “facts” must we know to derail it?
In making “We the People” the sovereign, the Founders knew that they were taking a chance. That’s why they opted for a republic, a Platonic ideal of educated, wise leaders somewhat shielded from the passions of the mob. But we have long since jettisoned that model for a purely democratic one. And now Gore is among those worried that the result is a country fueled by irrational passion.
What can we do about that? Well, one answer is to make more reliable facts available to the voters.
Unspinning the spin
One of the main suppliers of them is an unassuming fellow named Brooks Jackson. I’ve known, admired and trusted him for decades. A former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and CNN, he now runs a popular webpage called FactCheck.org. The site is funded by the prestigious – and non-partisan – Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The goal is to carefully sort fact from fiction in campaign advertising.
During the height of the ’04 campaign, Jackson told me, the site was getting 200,000 to 300,000 hits per day – impressive numbers. Business already is beginning to pick up for ’08. This time, the site will monitor not only presidential campaigns but those for Congress and even judicial races in the many states that vote for judges.
Teachers are using Jackson’s resources so heavily that he has created a new site, FactCheckEd.org, for them. He has his own new book out, co-authored with Kathleen Hall Jamieson of Penn, called UnSpun. It explains how voters can use the research resources of the Internet to be their own fact-checkers.
With a field of 18 candidates (so far) and the prospect of independently funded campaigns that will spend more money than federal limits, more than $2 billion may be spent on TV advertising alone. That’s a lot of emotional fuel to control.
But can it really be controlled? Some scientists doubt it. They show TV ads to voters and test their responses. In one study, a professor at Emory concluded, the rational, thought-producing sectors of the brain were not active as the voters watched the ads. “It turns out we are wired to take mental shortcuts,” said Jackson.
Still, Jackson says, he is inspired when he gets emails from partisan voters who tell him that the website has broken through their emotional defenses on one issue or another. “I don’t feel I am wasting my time,” he says hopefully, and I have to agree.