Every election season brings with it a relatively brief period when people talk about things like silent majorities, independent parties, and viable non-establishment candidates. Usually that talk vaporizes after about 15 minutes of people entertaining nonsensical think pieces on why this is finally Nader’s year, or why everything’s finally lining up for Ron Paul, or how Kucinich has a shot, or Ross Perot. Basically after a short stint in fantasy land, people come back down to earth and just cast their vote for their party’s guy/gal, who may be is always a huge disappointment.
This year, though, there is a strange air about the place. Donald Trump is still firmly in the lead on the GOP side, long after people had predicted he’d already have buzzed off, while Bernie Sanders is trouncing Hillary Clinton at every turn.
Is it possible that we’ve finally turned that corner? Is the Democratic establishment, which is of course bankrolled by corporate interests just like the GOP establishment, really going to go to the mat for an unapologetic socialist? The smart money is on “of course not.” Because the reality is that if the general election featured, say, Jeb Bush (or for that matter Kasich, Fiorina, Christie, or Rubio) versus Bernie Sanders a lot of those establishment Dems wouldn’t think twice about voting Republican. I mean, not on their Facebook pages, that’s where they’ll want to appear to be loyal class warriors, but I’m talking about what will actually happen in the polling booth. Similarly on the other side, there are tons of right wingers who will go into a polling booth and happily pull the lever for Clinton rather than vote for Trump in the general election. For that matter they’d probably consider Hillary over Ted Cruz or Rand Paul.
What’s most interesting is how we’ll look back on it from a distance. After Trump and Bernie have faded, will we look back and say, “Duh, of course they faded. Who was really going to vote for those guys?” Or will we actually look at the factors that made them popular and wonder what that tells us about our society? I hope the latter. Because what it tells me is that we’ve come too far from the Socratic notion of “I know that I know nothing” to the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns,” to be so brazenly hubristic.
Where it was once a sign of intelligence to honestly admit one’s knowledge, or lack thereof, it is now an impossible standard by which we shame each other. It’s not sufficient anymore to simply be right or morally just, but to contrast that with your opponent’s obvious moral turpitude. How could one be pro-life if they’re pro-choice? How can one be religious and support direct contraventions of their own religion? How can we eternally be “on the right side of history?”
We’ve discovered an efficient route to that in the mantra of “fake but accurate.” This is that basest of human conditions wherein we hear what we want to, block out what we don’t, and justify contradiction to sleep at night, rather than admit that we know that we don’t know.
A startling and fascinating demonstration will soon be enjoyed by all in the form of Truth, a new film dramatizing the Killian documents saga. For those with an extremely short memory, the Killian story (or Rathergate, as it became known to a country full of uncreative and incredibly lazy pundits) refers to the 2004 mini-scandal that claimed the career of Dan Rather and his producer Mary Mapes. In September of 2004, on an episode of 60 Minutes II, Rather presented a story that contended that George W. Bush, who was just a couple months away from being re-elected president, had skipped out on his Air National Guard service and that pressure had been applied, from shadowy higher ups to his commander, to whitewash his absence. The centerpiece of the report was a document, purported to be from the personal typewriter of Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, clearly outlining how Bush had skipped out on his duty and how he was being pressured to give him passing marks nonetheless. It was a bombshell story, particularly right before the election. Unfortunately for Rather, Mapes, and CBS, the Internet was well into its existence, and it only took a couple hours for multiple sources to pretty convincingly establish that the document was an obvious forgery. To this day, Rather won’t admit even that much, that the document was no good and he was hoodwinked. Whether or not Bush was a rotten recruit who deserves our scorn is another issue altogether, but at least we could agree, as rational people, that the main bit of evidence was bunk.
But strangely we didn’t agree on it. And the narrative quickly gurgled to the top: fake but accurate. Sure the memo may have been BS, but that’s beside the point because the greater truth is true. And who needs evidence to know a great truth anyway? And now Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett will play Rather and Mapes respectively in a dramatization of the affair that, and I’m not making this up, will focus on how they were victimized by the press and bloodthirsty citizenry. It wasn’t their fault the documents were fake, and it wasn’t their fault that they were duped when even garden variety non-professionals smelled a fake instantly. It wasn’t their fault they lost their jobs and wouldn’t give an inch in admitting their failures. It was our fault. Because we couldn’t see the truth.
And so today we have the court of public opinion, which we use to pass judgment on every issue from gun control, race relations, sex crime, and political morality. And if the data doesn’t back up our assertions, it’s okay, because there’s a larger truth. Here’s an interesting “truth” to ponder as we get closer to Iowa and New Hampshire: perhaps the only things “fake” and “accurate” at the same time are silent majorities, independent parties, and viable non-establishment candidates.