How you can bring more truth to campaigns – and government
Combating lies and spin during this election campaign has to start with us, the voters. Here's a toolkit of resources.
Now that Donald Trump has called Hillary Clinton a “world-class liar,” and a Boston Globe columnist has labeled Trump “a liar – plain and simple,” the long-avoided L-word is clearly in vogue. Gone are the days when politicians politely criticized their colleagues for being “mistaken” or having “misspoken.” Now it’s straight-out deceit.
The voters have noticed and are clearly disgusted. It’s exhausting trying to sort out “what’s fluff, what’s been engineered, and what’s actually true,” one middle-aged Kentucky man admitted in a poll conducted by the Associated Press. Echoed another voter, a woman in Arkansas: “You’ve got to wade through so much muck to find the truth.”
Instead of complaining, however, we have another much more empowering alternative: using our freedoms to search out the truth. Howard Thurman, the powerful African-American theologian and civil rights leader, called it “the sound of the genuine.” When we hear it, our skin tingles. We may shed a tear, or find ourselves cheering.
Since fact-twisting seems to be overtaking fact-finding, don’t we, the people, need to ask ourselves some tough questions? Are we, the people, suffering from some kind of truth allergy? Are many of us so afraid of learning what is actually happening that we would rather hear half-truths than the straight scoop?
To avoid the truth, we now collude in a practice that has become so common that we have a new word for it: spin. Eager to get (re)elected, politicians don’t want to disturb us with the truth, so they sugar-coat or otherwise distort it. Meanwhile, not wanting to be distracted from our busy lives, we reward politicians who tell us what we want to hear rather than what is actually happening.
Exposing and combating this “truth phobia” will not start with the candidates. It has to start with us, the voters. So after doing some homework, let’s take action.
• Let’s educate ourselves. Learn hot to identify spin and ignore it. “ ‘Spin’ is a polite word for deception,” writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading expert on political communication in the book which she co-authored with Brooks Jackson entitled “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.” “Both sides actively work to deceive the public.” Like a pitcher’s curveball, the words we hear coming out of candidates’ mouths are not coming at us straight. They are loaded with spin in order to change direction suddenly in mid air. It’s designed to fool us.
• Get the facts. Ms. Jamieson and her colleagues at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania founded FactCheck.org, which strives to be a “consumer advocate” for voters and is particularly active during election cycles. to determine what is true, half-true, and plain old falsehood. Another source for truth-telling and lie-detecting, also designed by journalists, is PolitiFact, which was developed by the Tampa Bay Times. It actually rates the accuracy of statements by elected officials and pundits.
• Support fact-based efforts it Washington. In March 2016, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, a bill establishing the Evidence-Based Policy Commission. The commission would actually collect from all government agencies so that our lawmakers would have accurate facts and figures on which to base their decisions. It sounds remarkably elemental, but the truth is that all too often policies are made based on faulty, out-of-date or incomplete information.
• Take a fact-based approach to controversial issues. While politicians and citizens argue about gun rights vs. gun control, for example, do we even know the facts? Do we know how many people own guns or how many are stolen? Do we know whether background checks actually reduce gun violence? Do we know what programs work – and why? As the Urban Institute has pointed out, we are still missing this kind of crucial information. How can we make sound gun policy decisions when we’re shooting in the dark?
To overcome our aversion to truth, it’s time to improve our civic listening skills so that we actually recognize the “sound of the genuine” when we it spoken. Thurman believed that every human being “waits and listens” for it. And he warned us: “If you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
Ultimately, that is the question each of us must answer. Will we be averse to hearing hard truths – or listen deeply for the “the sound of the genuine?” Will we be puppets – or citizens?
Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide."