The Enemy Isn’t Republicans. It’s Liars.
The case for a broad, fact-based alliance against fabrications.
William Saletan, Slate, 24 Jan 202 17:00 PM
Over the years, I’ve bounced around the political spectrum. I was liberal in Texas, more conservative in college, and now I’m somewhere in the middle. Through it all, I saw politics as a fight between left and right. I don’t see it that way anymore. Donald Trump’s presidency has exposed a bigger threat: an all-out attack on the principle that facts must be respected. We used to take that principle for granted; now we must defend it. Politics has become a fight between those who are willing to respect evidence and those who aren’t.
I’m not saying Trump’s other sins and crimes—the corruption, the bigotry, the treachery, the hundreds of thousands of deaths—don’t matter. They certainly do. But those legacies, awful as they are, aren’t as crippling as the damage he has done to our capacity for deliberation. On the issues before us—COVID, jobs, infrastructure, immigration, trade, police reform—there are lots of ideas that could unite progressives and conservatives. But without agreement on facts, or at least on a method of distinguishing facts from lies, we lose our ability to agree on policy.
What Trump has brought to the United States is ruthless, relentless, denialist propaganda at a scale we used to see only in dictatorships. He proved that tens of millions of Americans would believe such lies and that thousands would violently attack our own government. President Joe Biden, in his inaugural address, recognized this menace. “We face an attack on democracy and on truth,” said Biden. The challenge, he observed, wasn’t just ordinary political spin, but an allegation that were wholly “manufactured.” Each of us, said Biden, “has a duty … to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
Progressives and conservatives have always quarreled about what’s true. But to make those debates productive, and to correct our country’s mistakes—failed projects, naïve policies, bad wars—we need a common standard for judging truth. That standard can’t be the Bible or identity politics. It has to be the standard we apply in daily life: evidence. If you say the election was stolen, you have to prove it in court. If you accuse a police officer of murder, your story has to withstand investigation.
That’s how science works. While politicians stage stupid, interminable fights over wearing masks, scientists have quickly devised vaccines from genomes posted on the internet. Science has cured diseases, rolled back infant mortality, extended healthy lifespans, broadened access to information, and developed new energy technologies.
Why is science so effective? Because it constantly tests its theories against reality. It seeks out, accepts, and learns from falsification. That’s what Vice President Kamala Harris, in remarks last week, said she had learned from her mother, an endocrinologist: “She instilled in me a fundamental belief in the importance of collecting and analyzing data, facts, of forming a hypothesis, and recognizing that it’s not a failure to reevaluate that hypothesis when the facts don’t add up.” In science, discovering you were wrong isn’t failure. It’s progress.
Scientists take this process of testing and reevaluation for granted. To them, it’s common sense. But it’s more than that. It’s an ethic. No law of nature forces you to test your theories against evidence or to admit, when those theories don’t check out, that you were wrong. Scientists concede error, often grudgingly, because their peers demand it. Science has a culture of falsification.
Politics doesn’t. When political promises don’t pan out—wars turn into quagmires, public schools underperform, or tax cuts fail to pay for themselves—politicians invent excuses. This has always been a problem, but it’s getting worse. Trump and his acolytes don’t just spin facts; they completely disregard them. They repeat fantastic lies about election fraud, and when they’re confronted with contrary evidence, they’re not even embarrassed.
If we don’t get control of this—if we don’t reestablish an ethic of respect for facts—nothing else will be solved. We can’t extinguish the virus if tens of millions of Americans insist it’s a hoax and refuse to be vaccinated or wear masks. We can’t restore public faith in election results and put down insurrectionism if half the population refuses to believe anything the media report. Repairing the consensus that facts must be respected won’t settle our debates on spending, education, or criminal justice. But without that consensus, the crisis we’re in will get much worse.
If you’re not willing to compromise with reasonable people in the other party, you’re not appreciating the gravity of the crisis. Four hundred thousand Americans are dead, most of them needlessly. Two-thirds of the House Republican conference, nearly one-third of the entire House, voted to reject the 2020 election results. Thousands of Americans just invaded our own Capitol, some of them looking to hang the vice president or kidnap the speaker of the House. Tens of millions of others believe the lies that inspired the attack.
If you hold Trump and his party responsible for this madness, as I do, it’s tempting to write off the whole GOP. The COVID deniers and election conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly on the right. For the next two years, Democrats will control the presidency, the House, and the Senate. Why not just tell Republicans to go to hell? The answer is that propagandists thrive on polarization. They recruit and derange their followers by dismissing all criticism as partisan. To break their grip on the right half of the country, we need a fact-based alliance that crosses party lines.
That means looking for common ground everywhere. It means supporting Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. Liz Cheney, and other Republicans when they speak the truth. It means seriously engaging fact-based journalism at the Dispatch, the Bulwark, National Review, and other publications in the center and on the right. It means distinguishing the sins of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush from the pathologies of Trump and Newt Gingrich. In this fight, we need everyone who’s willing to play by the rules of deliberative democracy. So, for at least the next four years, that’s my commitment: If you believe in settling disputes by consulting evidence, I’m on your team.