“Wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789
Thomas Jefferson’s support of a free press and education for the common people — including entry to the highest levels of instruction (i.e. a college or university) — was based on the belief that a knowledgeable, well-educated citizenry was necessary for the preservation of democracy. One of his greatest fears was that the people would cede power to the government through sheer ignorance and lack of understanding.
So what happens when the process of educating and informing American citizens starts to break down? Can the checks and balances put in place by the Founding Fathers hold up in the face of a full blown idiocratic meltdown?
These types of questions were pretty far from my mind last summer when I started tracking the progress of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates using data from Politifact. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if there was a way to use this data to better understand the path to a successful nomination.
As a refresher, the 2016 Presidential campaign officially began in March of 2015 when Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for office. He was eventually joined by sixteen other Republicans, six Democrats and a miscellany of Libertarians, Socialists and Green Party candidates – the largest presidential primary field in American history. At the time, Hillary Clinton was considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination but there was no clear frontrunner on the Republican side. Pundits couldn’t decide if the large Republican field reflected that party’s depth of talent or its lack of cohesiveness.
With the participants off and running, I was interested in seeing whether or not a politician’s truthfulness would be reflected in their strength as a candidate or whether there were other factors involved. My first analysis consisted of looking at Poliifact’s “truth-o-meter” and seeing if I could tease out any meaningful differences between candidates. The following chart shows each candidate’s average rating (where 5 = True, 4 = Mostly True, 3 = Half True, 2 = Mostly False, 1 = False, 0 = “Pants on Fire”) and their “skewness”, which was my attempt at getting at the asymmetry (lean more true, lean more false) of their responses. Size represents the number of times Politifact checked statements by the candidates. I included a few outside sources of information (Facebook, emails, blogs) and politicians (Biden, Obama) for reference. (Responses as of September 18, 2015.)
Here’s the same chart (same time period) with just the two final candidates:
I had two takeaways from this exercise. The first was that candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson had about as much credibility as a chain letter from your cranky uncle. The second was that — based purely on my evaluations of truthfulness and believability – the most likely pick for the Republican nomination was probably going to be someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush … two Republican candidates with relatively high levels of positive (true) Politifact ratings.
As we now know, pretty much everybody got this wrong. How did this happen? Throughout the campaign commentator after commentator expressed their concern with Trump’s rather dubious relationship with the truth. New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that Trump “is perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes” while political writer David Frum said that Trump’s mendacity is “qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee.” Politico awarded Trump’s campaign misstatements their 2015 Lie of the Year and, in May of this year, Politico reporters analyzed a full week of his speeches and found that the orange one made nearly one false or misleading statement every five minutes.
Summarized from the Atlantic:
“PolitiFact recently calculated that only 2 percent of the claims made by Trump are true, 7 percent are mostly true, 15 percent are half true, 15 percent are mostly false, 42 percent are false, and 18 percent are “pants on fire.” Adding up the last three numbers (from mostly false to flagrantly so), Trump scores 75 percent. The corresponding figures for Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, respectively, are 66, 32, 31, and 29 percent.”
Far from hurting him in the polls, however, Trump’s dishonesty is viewed as a positive feature by his supporters. An NBC, Telemundo, and Marist College poll taken last December suggests that more than seven in ten Republicans believe Trump “tells it like it is.” Since “telling it like it is” seems to be synonymous with lying out of one’s ass, many have speculated that the underlying cause of Trump’s success springs from his ability to give voice to the concerns of the typical conservative voter.
Or perhaps there is just a large swath of the American electorate who can no longer tell the difference between fact and fairytale.
Among Trump supporters …
- 90% think that Hillary Clinton knew the US Embassy in Benghazi was going to be attacked and did nothing to protect it (Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, October 2016)
- 68% think that President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life (Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, October 2016)
- 65% think President Obama is a Muslim (Public Policy Polling, May 2016)
- 60% believe that global warming is a myth concocted by scientists (Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, October 2016)
- 59% still think President Obama was born outside the United States (Public Policy Polling, May 2016)
- 51% say they are not too or not at all confident in an accurate vote count nationally (Pew Research, August 2016)
- 23% think the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school were faked in order to increase support for gun control (Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, October 2016)
Of course, the left has its own set of conspiracy theories and American’s penchant for kooky ideas doesn’t seem to conform to any political boundaries. However, the statements above continue to be voiced by the candidate himself and that is unusual.
I get it. People are angry and frustrated and Trump gives them a voice. But instead of speaking with or compromising with their fellow citizens they are willing to throw bombs in the hopes that the country that rises out of the rubble is more suited to their tastes. Is that really what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers wanted for their republic? Mob rule?
Some people would say it is. In a letter to William Stephens Smith after Shay’s Rebellion in the 1780s, Jefferson famously stated that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Many people on the far right like to toss out this quote whenever they feel that American society needs a kick in the pants.
However, it should be noted that this particular quote is frequently taken out of context. Earlier in that same letter, Jefferson wrote that:
“the people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part [of the population] which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.”
Notice Jefferson’s use of the phrase “well-informed” in this situation (also used in the opening quote for this article). He is describing something that is absent from the discontented participants of the rebellion. They are not well-informed and their misconceptions have fueled their anger — leading them down the path to revolt. He’s not surprised by the fighting because a free people are passionate about their liberty and will fight to maintain it (thus the “blood of patriots” line). But he is also saying that their actions spring from a place of ignorance.
This sounds eerily familiar to our current situation. Ignorance is no longer seen as a negative, but a sincere sign of authenticity. Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters seem unable to process basic information, preferring conspiracy theories and “satisfying stories” to expertise and careful deliberation. No wonder people are angry … they are both blind and deaf to the truth.
Roger Cohen of the New York Times puts it succinctly:
“A know-nothing tide is upon us. Tribal politics, anchored in tribal media, has made knowing nothing a badge of honor. Ignorance, loudly declaimed, is an attribute, especially if allied to celebrity. Facts are dispensable baggage. To display knowledge, the acquisition of which takes time, is tantamount to showing too much respect for the opposition tribe, who know nothing anyway.”
It would seem a simple thing to set these people straight. In fact, if we look at the full paragraph of Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quote, we see that he outlines a solution plainly (highlighted):
“The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty … What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
Jefferson obviously felt that having a well-informed citizenry (via education and the free press) would eliminate or at least reduce the majority of these types of conflicts. But the path to enlightenment isn’t always so easy. A 2000 study by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uninformed.
“The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion … the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become ‘indistinguishable from hard data.'”
In other words, you can’t simply “set them right as to the facts” because they already have fake facts embedded in their heads. To make matters worse, another study found that attempts to correct people’s misconceptions often caused them to hold on to their opinions more tightly. This defensive processing (the “backfire effect”) allows politicians like Trump to fill people’s heads with nonsense while keeping them fully engaged and politically active. He is their friend and savior … the only person willing to tell them the truth.
Writing in FiveThirtyEight, Anne Pluta states breaks down the incentive to deceive people:
“For most politicians, it doesn’t make sense to use precious resources to try to move or dissuade people from their incorrect positions — especially if this misinformation supports the political actor’s policy positions or legislative goals (as it does in Trump’s case).”
So if some politicians are actively working against the establishment of a well-informed citizenry, how can we apply Jefferson’s remedy? We will explore this remedy – and why it is struggling during this presidency — in another post.
- 02/27/2017 – “Trump wants to brand the press as the enemy of the American people when the exact opposite is true: A free, fearless, adversarial, in-your-face press is the best friend a democracy can have.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/opinion/trump-archenemy-of-truth.html?_r=0)
- 09/12/2019 – Has Generation X missed its shot at the presidency? (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/10/gen-x-president/596644/)
Original artwork by Anna Kinde