In the most recent presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Americans witnessed on a large scale a number of policy positions, claims, statistics, and data from both sides, aiming to support one view or another. Statistics were tossed out of the mouths of candidates, statements of policy involved predictions in the economy on a large scale, and promises were made.
Much of the process was not factual, or at the very least pseudo-factual. Several fact-checking entities pointed to a cycle of seemingly endless untruths. Indeed, Americans feel they are being lied to constantly, and you would be hard pressed to challenge this attitude, statistics or not.
Perhaps, given the candidates, everyone might have expected this. On the whole, Politifact rates only 15% of Donald Trump’s statements as true or mostly true, and they rate Hillary Clinton’s true and mostly true statements at 51%. Dismal numbers.
If the democratic process of modern times demands truthfulness and factual statements, we are heading down a discouraging path.
Perhaps now more than ever, we need to talk about facts. In today’s political climate, and indeed our society at large, lines between what is truthful and what is empirical are blurring. On the whole, we have become a body of people in agreement on one thing: no amount of research, data, or statistics will change stances. We are polarized and indeed immobilized by the variety of information at our fingertips.
In an interview with CNN reporter, Alisyn Camerota, former GOP candidate Newt Gingrich hit this attitude on the head when he said, “The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics, which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are…As a political candidate, I’ll go with the way people feel, and you’ll go with the theoreticians.” Obviously this is not a feeling exclusive to conservatives, but increasingly, this rejection of data is evident no matter where on the political spectrum one might land.
As Gingrich might say, feelings are the new facts. Many members of the polis have their values and political opinions cemented in their character. They shape their entire identities on their political beliefs. Americans remain stubborn and unshakeable, statistics be damned. We live in the information age, where we have the ability to research myriad topics and find data to helps us form conclusions, but the problem remains, how do voters consolidate what is factually true with their gut feeling?
Increasingly, Americans don’t. As contemporary issues arise, this new expansion of data has not brought enlightenment, and problems of confirmation bias have only muddied already unclear waters. We seek out information to support our already held beliefs, and convincing us otherwise will be difficult, especially if you’re going to throw around statistics and facts.
Part of the problem is that statistics offer opportunities for a variety of dissenting interpretations. A great example of this was during the presidential debate, on the discussion of stop-and-frisk policies. Donald Trump brought up that the murder rate in New York City went from 2,200 to 500 during a time that coincided with stop-and-frisk policies in the city (nevermind that this practice was ruled unconstitutional). While Trump used this as evidence that stop-and-frisk was working at the time, many on the other side of the issue are pointing out that these are two unrelated facts.
Not only is this same statistic used to tout different causes and reasons why the crime rate went down that look favorable on either side of the aisle, they also perpetuate political process based on emotional feeling. At the end of the day, even after this practice was ruled unconstitutional, many Americans feel it was a great practice. That is the crux of the issue. The conversation has shifted from the realities of the circumstance into the imagined ways to deal with the problem based on how it feels.
But even when the factual conclusions are clear, positions are not. A great example of this is the debate on climate change. Climate change is proven overwhelmingly by scientists. Does this stop many voters from calling it a conspiracy? No. They simply don’t believe the scientific consensus, and you can’t make them.
It seems that as many fact-checkers involve themselves in this unending search for the truth, several politicians like Trump are tapping in to the concerns of their emotional electorates. Indeed, many are emboldened by a populous uninterested in the data of a situation if it doesn’t support their views. The prognosis is clear, Americans are uninterested in the research, they want immediate gratification, they want to be right.
This election we have a front row seat to the show: supporting your argument with research is no longer considered a fool-proof line of defense. Tap into a feeling though, and suddenly you’re invoking all kinds of ‘silent majorities.’ Any position you take, if you think you’ll get by based on the facts, think again. You might as well try to reach others by shouting in the plaza (good luck). Next time you want to win people over to your cause, know that your facts and figures have no sway.