Column: Facts, differing perspectives necessary for political engagement

Column: Facts, differing perspectives necessary for political engagement

By Alex Frandsen, editorial columnist

For most of the past decade, The Washington Post has had a section on its website called the Fact Checker. Primarily used to monitor the statements public officials make, it has been a solid source for verifying whether politicians are actually saying things that are, you know, at least partially grounded in the truth. And for nearly a decade, it has done admirably well at its job, rating statements on a scale from one to four “pinocchios.”

But then came Donald Trump.

Yes, all politicians lie. But no presidential candidate has ever taken fact and completely thrown it out the window like Trump has. He has lied about everything from the growth of the GDP to his role in choosing Cleveland as the site of the convention, and he has done it with absolutely zero remorse.

There’s a saying from former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Trump has repeatedly shown that he thinks he is entitled to both. The craziest part is, that doesn’t even seem to be affecting voters very much; the stat geniuses at currently give him a 43.2 percent chance of winning the election, while national polls put him on virtually even ground with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

But Trump’s success did not grow out of a vacuum. He is a symptom of the culture that has been cultivated in this country, one that values party lines over logic, knee-jerk reactions over research.

Part of this can be attributed to the media environment we are now immersed in. Fifty years ago, there only used to be a couple places people went to for their news: Their local paper or the nightly news. Everyone watched and read the same content for the most part, and in turn, the media provided relatively objective reporting. Today is a different story. No matter where you fall on the political ideological spectrum, there is a website tailored specifically to your beliefs. Believe Obama is a Muslim and was born in Africa? There’s a website for that. Believe vaccines are a poisonous government conspiracy? There’s a website for that. It’s kind of like that old “There’s an app for that” commercial Apple had, except with crippling social consequences.

It is now totally feasible to never hear or read anything that contradicts your opinion, as you can easily customize your Twitter feed or Facebook timeline to include only your preferred publications. Cable news has had the same effect; if you don’t like what they’re saying on NBC, with a click of a few buttons, you can have FOX News or MSNBC up in no time.

In a nutshell, everyone can have their own set of “facts” now, as Trump has proved time and time again. That is a major problem for hundreds of reasons, but the most troubling one is this – democracy simply does not work without a properly educated populace. If the correct leaders are to be chosen, then the people voting for them must have at least a basic understanding of what is true and what is not. If Trump’s uncomfortably high poll numbers tell us anything, it’s that we have faltered as a society in our perception of the facts.

But we haven’t yet faltered to the point of no return. The turnaround must start with our generation. As the new generation of voters, there are a couple steps we can take to get the national attitude towards the truth back on track. The first is to simply flip the chain of thinking many of us have employed since becoming interested in politics. Instead of asserting our opinion and then seeking sources to back us up, we have to start with what is unequivocally true and work up from there. Rather than immediately believing a headline on your timeline, look up the facts behind it. You can’t be manipulated by the media if you know your stuff.

The second step is a little more painful. Add sources and publications to your daily reading that hold different beliefs than you. If you follow Slate, add FOX News too. If you love the Drudge Report, give MSNBC a follow, too. (Just avoid Breitbart, which is mainly a deep pit of anger and preposterousness.) Yes, you will cringe at least a couple times a day. But being educated doesn’t mean being comfortable. It means pushing yourself to understand all sides of an issue, no matter how much you think you disagree.

Professors and old people in general love that saying about how a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until it’s been yanked out. Well, we are the fish. We won’t see the lies and bias we float in from day to day unless we force ourselves above water. And for the good of our nation’s political future, now is the time for us to come up for a deep breath.  


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