On Eroding Democratic Norms

The Constitution is a well-crafted document, but its power comes from the reverence we pay it; our democracy is dependent on democratic norms, such as respect for constitutional procedures, rule of law, and trust in the basic fairness of the system. Undermining that trust erodes the very foundation of our government.

The founding fathers recognized the importance of these norms. While they devised a system based on the premise that human nature is corruptible and that men were naturally self-serving and ambitious, they also believed that those who represent the people will be of superior character. “If we consider the situation of the men on whom the free suffrages of their fellow-citizens may confer the representative trust, we shall find it involving every security which can be devised or desired for their fidelity to their constituents,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 57. Madison adds, “In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.”

And since the founding, presidents of the United States have paid homage to the necessity of respect for law, the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence, and the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Additionally, modern presidents have made pains to get facts straight, even when using those facts to spin a narrative supporting controversial policy positions. Democratic norms and facts have mattered—at least the espousal of facts and norms have mattered.

President Trump has taken a noticeable departure from this standard, as far as I can tell. He has avowed that the media is the enemy of the people, contradicting the long-held position among American leaders that a free press is a necessary staple of a healthy democracy. He has made irrefutably erroneous statements speaking as the head of state that he has not corrected, and his press secretary has seemingly renounced the goal of fact checking, in favor of supporting the non-factual statements of the President.

This behavior has eroded our democratic norms and principles in the short period of President Trump’s tenure so far, and if continued, could possibly create irreparable damage.

It is common to oppose presidents for their policy positions, or distortion of facts, or on ideological principles while sharing a basic agreement on the norms of democracy, debate, and facts. It is uncommon to take issue with a sitting president’s commitment to basic American values. Even when opponents of George W. Bush (during debates about the Patriot Act) or opponents of Barack Obama (in light of health care reform) challenged the sitting president’s basic commitment to American values, the response of those presidents recognized the concerns of opponents and reaffirmed, at least rhetorically, the administration’s commitments to our democratic principles. Obama, Bush, and every modern president before them (with the possible exception of Nixon in his most dark times before resignation) recognized the legitimacy of the press and of the opposition, both within and outside of government. All of the modern presidents spoke of the great contributions of immigrants and of the value of tolerance toward others. All of the modern presidents before Donald Trump paid homage to the international community of nations, with respect for other cultures and with a commitment to international leadership.

The 2016 presidential election was far too close for anyone to claim a mandate from the electorate. The nation appeared not only closely divided, but deeply divided, as evidenced by the protests both in favor of the new president and against the new administration almost immediately. The size of the Women’s March on the weekend after the inauguration is a case in point, demonstrating the concern within the American public, and the protests following the President’s travel ban is another example of the unease.

Further concern can be measured by the historically low approval ratings that President Trump had in his first weeks in office. Gallup’s numbers show that most citizens feel “strongly” in their approval or disapproval of the new president, with 41 percent in late February expressing “Strong disapproval” of the way the President is handling his job.

We should all be concerned about such low approval ratings; these are not simply a concern of the Trump White House, but rather a deeper reflection on the angst in the American citizenry.

Republicans and Democrats in leadership positions need to resist the siren call for partisan battle and join in the common defense of basic democratic norms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with partisan battles, but they must be conducted within the framework of democratic principles, with shared facts and basic norms of tolerance and respect of opposition points of view.

Post-Truth Politics

On February 16th, I participated in a panel on Post-Truth Politics at Castleton University. The panel was part of a series organized by the Castleton University Library, and the session I participated on was titled, “Fake News and Truthiness.” The following post is a slightly revised version of my opening remarks from that panel session.

Facts hold a special place in political discourse. In his defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre, John Adams spoke, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reiterated these words in a Senate hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Both men assumed that facts were irrefutable and held a special place in our deliberations.

People may disagree about the meaning of facts, but the facts exist independent of individuals’ opinions. Still, it is important to draw a distinction between facts and truth. A fact is something that cannot be refuted through reasoning or observation, whereas truth is something which depends on a person’s perspective and experience.

In a New York Times Op Ed piece last August (Aug. 24, 2016), William Davies, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of London, wrote that, “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” The presumption that follows is that the previous age was an age of truth politics—a dubious presumption for sure. Consider the verbal gymnastics of Donald Rumsfeld, the parsing of words by Bill Clinton, the enigmatic statements from Fed Chairmen, or other creative political communications that have stretched truth, often past the breaking point. I don’t know that the pre-“Post Truth World” was really a place of established truth.

In fact, I think that “truth” is too lofty a goal for political communication.

I tell the students in my Research Methods class that if they want “truth” they need to go to church … or maybe a museum or philosophy discussion. Science doesn’t provide truth. It provides a method for understanding our world that is limited to physical and/or behavioral phenomena – limited to that which can be measured.

That being said, science is very useful; it has improved the lives of nearly everyone on the planet in some measurable way. At the same time it has also created weapons so horrific they could terminate our existence as a species.

Science is a method; it’s not the outcome. It is not a moral system. It is a process for understanding our world.

We who sell science as a means for understanding, however, too often simply convey results or findings of our research. In so doing, we’ve failed to propagate our methods, which are the essence of scientific understanding. By failing to instill the methods of scientific understanding—instead, focusing on findings—we failed to bring the general public along to scientific reasoning. If all that matters is the findings—and the means for obtaining those findings are irrelevant—then the public is left with little criteria for judging among conflicting findings.

And that’s where we are.
Truth may be too high a bar for the sciences—the natural and social sciences. But we should be able to agree upon a set of facts—agree about testable observations corresponding to the observable world.

Our news and political debate should be based upon fact, as Adams and McCain suggest. Yet too often facts are distorted or ignored. We live in a world of slanted news and now even the oxymoronic “FAKE news.”

I want to draw a distinction between slanted news and fake news; the former has an element of truth but may suggest motives or imply a nefarious agenda, while the latter is completely fabricated from thin air. An example of fake news is the story that claimed John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were running a child prostitution ring from a Washington Pizzeria. The story sounds preposterous, but one individual believing it to be true went to the pizzeria, armed, to liberate the victims.

The proliferation of slanted news allowed an environment where someone could believe the fabricated news. If your diet of news constantly tells you that Hillary Clinton is corrupt, without morals, and so power hungry that she will do anything, the fabricated story becomes plausible.

A Los Angeles Times reporter met with the man who went to the pizzeria to intervene on behalf of the children—a noble cause if there ever was one. He was not a bad man, looking to harm people. He went with the best of intentions. Yet a situation was created where people’s lives were endangered.

Fake news has real consequences.

Our political discourse is eroded by neglecting facts with impunity. When the public distrusts the media nearly as much as they distrust a leader who has on many occasions shown no regard for facts, we lack a firm foundation for rational political discourse.

If we aspire to reach some truth or greater understanding, it is imperative that we pave that path with universally recognized facts.