“Once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens you can never regain their respect and esteem.”
The leading voices in 21st century political misinformation display command of sophisticated techniques. Yet, from Wall Street to the White House, there has long been a fundamental disregard for basic truths. By this I do not refer to specific falsehoods in the misinformation. Instead I see the strategy of popularizing ideas through misinformation as deeply unsound. On one level, policies propped up by bogus argument risk redefinition in terms of those bogus arguments. On another, misinformation campaigns tend to generate backlash that increases dramatically over time.
Manipulators forget that ideas good in theory may still fail in practice since propping up talking points may sap energy away from potentially real accomplishments. Manipulators also forget that ideas that are not even good in theory cannot find enduring support in an open society with access to good information. Spin atop spin may work to motivate frenzied extremists, but it only alienates thinkers anchored in reality. Yet the more moderate citizens see something screwy in the rhetoric of a national leader, the less confidence they will have in all of that leaders arguments and initiatives.
Contrast Operation Desert Storm with Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 1991 war was waged in the context of a defensible idea. George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” while leading an enormous coalition to drive an invading army from Kuwait. Even so, legitimate appeals were bolstered by propaganda. Madison Avenue experts crafted heartwrenching tales of premature Kuwaiti infants wrenched from lifesaving incubators. Stories of alleged atrocities taking place inside Kuwait passed completely unfiltered from dubious sources to evening newscasts. Yet over any time frame, the backlash generated by these deceptions was minimal.
This was because the war propaganda of the time never stole center stage from the real story. The integrity of national borders, the essence of geopolitical stability, was at stake. Thus there is all the more irony in the fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was chiefly justified by an argument for pre-emptive defense. The very stability at the heart of Bush the Elder’s greatest achievement was cast aside in favor of a new paradigm that allowed violent aggression to be justified by nothing more than a fearful state of mind. Fanatics doing the bidding of Osama bin Laden gave this century an uncertain start. George W. Bush insured it would remain an uncertain time for many years to come.
During the decade that international efforts did so much to contain and extinguish military aggression, times were generally good. Radicals and fundamentalists engaged in their share of disruptive activities, but cooler heads prevailed anywhere public scrutiny was influential. World leaders were generally inclined to solve problems and raise confidence. A culture of responsibility heavily discouraged generating new troubles and raising public fears. That culture failed the people of the United States so far this century.
The same failure is evident beyond the realm of politics. For years Wall Street thrived on a potent blend of false narratives. Loose credit inflated housing prices beyond reason, which in turn justified continuity in the practices associated with the phrase “loose credit.” Corporations achieved great profits by relocating production abroad, yet years of unconditional support for free trade meant trading those short term gains for sustainable progress a more robust industrial sector could provide. The house of cards so freshly tumbled has been unsound for a decade or more, yet when is the first time serious critics were given serious public attention?
No serious participants in American public dialog want to see further ruin befall our national economy. No serious participants in American public dialog want the nation to succumb to foreign invaders. Yet many very serious, and very vocal, participants in American public dialog prey upon gullibility and fear, demonizing ideas and people alike. Having clutched so long at wickedly false narratives, they are reduced to arguing that disagreement with their agenda is the equivalent of disloyalty to the nation as a whole.
How did we get here? Fearmongers and hatemongers have always been a fixture in public life. Even in the happiest and most peaceful of times, some people will be disaffected and others demented. Their ravings are more likely to strike a popular chord when fear or anger come to dominate the national mood. They are also more likely to gain influence when a vacuum is created by a lack of worthwhile ideas serving a large constituency. The result has a major party’s rank and file lobbing firebombs like “murderer” and “terrorist” at a sitting U.S. Senator lacking anything like a meaningful connection to any violence against Americans.
There is a certain crazy logic to it all. Amongst the extremist rhetoric is a disturbingly popular notion that, because taxation carries with it the force of law, simply having a publicly funded government is an unbearable imposition of violence. It is a view that comes from no place in reality. It is a view that has no place in realistic dialog. Yet it has a prominent place in the echo chambers of the American political right wing. In recent months, it is at the place that the most fervent opponents of political liberalism have jumped the rails altogether. Without sensible arguments and strong leaders to guide them, a web of conservative political movements resort to raw sound and fury.
The tension all this creates is not worse than simply going submitting to cutthroat agenda. Yet the tension need not have been allowed to fester so in the first place. If conservative political operatives and Republican partisans had not rejected so many mainstream ideas and institutions, the lines of communications would have been much healthier. It is hard to overstate the extent of the prices paid for their failure.
Take the example of interest rates. No doubt in the past seven years there have been some strong arguments for action by the Federal Reserve to lower rates. Yet the history of rate cuts suggests even the weakest of those arguments was embraced while contrary views simply went unheard. An inclusive process accommodating differences of opinion would have been much less likely to stray into an extremist rut. Had rates been cut more slowly (or even raised from time to time) during the past eight years, the present crisis could have been softened (or even averted) by bold cuts in response to the earliest major events related to tightening credit.
This is just one of many truly horrible situations that was shaped in part by a bunker mentality hostile to mainstream ideas. It may be fair to argue that voices of protest against the latest war in Iraq were outside the mainstream in 2003. It certainly is fair to note that there was vocal mainstream concern when Saddam Hussein had been captured and American officials refused to consider subsequent demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy. Some good ideas implemented recently were rejected in the past while others (including taking the U.S. Armed Forces out of the lead in facilitating Iraq’s political progress) have yet to receive serious consideration by executive leaders.
From climate change to fiscal restraint to fair trade, a host of critical issues have been addressed (or not) by the whims of individuals deaf to even the most insightful and constructive of their critics. Entangled with this problem of insular thinking is the problem of public confidence. Ignoring sound critiques while endlessly echoing a mix of talking points crafted with little regard for verifiable facts will tend to make observers uneasy in direct proportion to how astute those observers are. This drives off the most honorable supporters of an agenda or organization while leaving the remainder increasingly frustrated and confused.
Over the long term, gains accomplished by campaigns of misinformation give way to growing doubt and distrust among the misinformed. That lost trust is of immense value in instances when it is desirable that the nation should rally behind a common cause. Public opinion of a prominent leader has long been a more useful asset than any weapons system or banking institution. Whatever struggles await the American people in the future, it is true that public confidence may light the way toward better outcomes. Yet the way toward better public confidence is itself only clear when lit by truthful dialog about those future struggles.