How do we make sense of the contemporary world when there are so many conflicting frameworks or narratives that are competing for our attention? Is it real news or fake? Is it partisan spin or fact? Is it significant or just another distraction?
One of the fundamental underpinnings of democratic theory is the existence of a well-informed public. For much of our history, we have taken for granted that the United States more or less fulfilled that requirement.
Today, however, we find ourselves questioning all the pieces that are needed, from a free, independent and unbiased press, to citizens who actively seek information, to a common societal definition of what constitutes facts or truth.
Any serious contemplation of these issues leads to the inevitable and irrefutable conclusion that we are in trouble. Can any form of democratic government, however imperfect, survive under the conditions that we face today?
I want to consider that dilemma not by another review of Donald Trump’s attacks on the press or of his tendency to lie about all manner of things– often without any obvious purpose. Neither do I want to recite the extreme polarization that characterizes our politics today. These concerns are real and dangerous. They have also received considerable attention even if that scrutiny has failed to offset their corrosive impact.
Instead, I want to take a different tack. I’ve selected three current examples of how our public discourse has plunged into the realm of the absurd. I am not taking any side on a policy debate. I’m not opining on the fitness of anyone to hold public office. What I am trying to do is show that we have accepted as normal actions and statements that should be beyond the boundaries of rational political discourse.
Let me start with the recent attack by the President of the United States on the national security assessment presented to Congress by the nation’s intelligence chiefs. The issue is not what this country’s policies should be with respect to North Korea, Iran or Russia. About policy there can be legitimate differences and there should be vigorous debate.
On the other hand, it’s beyond the realm of the rational that there should be disagreement as to how we determine what our policies should be. We should start with research, data and intelligence provided by the professionals employed by government to perform those tasks. “Gut instincts” and personal biases should not play any role in national security decisions.
There can still be differences of interpretation and different conclusions about the proper course of action in response to intelligence, but to dismiss the product of our experts out-of-hand is totally irresponsible. That conclusion cannot be a matter of partisan differences.
Yet, President Trump has rejected the findings of our intelligence agencies because they disagree with his “intuition”. He has no evidence to support his views and he has no interest in a healthy policy debate. It’s really hard to believe that just happened.
At almost the same time, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced from her podium in the White House briefing room that God had wanted Trump to become president. As an individual Sanders can believe anything she wants, but she should keep her theological views to herself. The clear implication of her pronouncement is that Trump is on a mission blessed by a higher being and that to oppose his positions is to go against God’s wishes.
Evangelicals have been the most steadfast of Trump’s base and Sanders is clearly appealing to that base. However, for a group that is vigorously concerned about the dangers of Sharia law being imposed in this country, the notion than a different version of religious mandates should be incorporated into our governing process seems both hypocritical and outrageous. Yet, this just happened also.
A third example of what be should be unimaginable actions by a public official comes from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. His personal yearbook page from medical school in 1984 showed a picture of one person in blackface and another wearing a KKK hood. The “he was just a kid” excuse doesn’t work. His early life in rural Virginia may well explain what he accepted as normal, but it doesn’t excuse what most people by that age would have recognized as indulging in racist stereotyping.
That Northam may not yet have it figured out was demonstrated by his confused, even incoherent, efforts to explain himself publicly. There’s undoubtedly room for an important discussion about whether we as a society are willing to recognize that people may change and grow, but Northam’s total botching of his press conference doesn’t leave you with much encouragement in his case.
Revulsion at his actions when he was a young adult shouldn’t be determined by race, political party or ideology. The fact that many in this country view Donald Trump as a racist himself doesn’t mitigate the reaction to Northam. Neither does the Republican Party’s sorry record on racial issues generally.
What we have are three examples that are so far beyond the pale in terms of acceptable standards that we should all agree they have no place in our politics. All three should be roundly condemned and all three should be taken as teachable moments. Unfortunately, what the three more likely represent are tips of an iceberg.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that the Constitutional convention was giving us “a Republic if you can keep it.” He would probably be horrified at what a tenuous grip we have on that Republic in 2019.