Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Truthiness as a Political Ideology

I would like to double, and if possible triple-down on George Packer's latest New Yorker column, specifically because of the clarity he instills on the general insanity of the Republican nomination process by highlighting the plight of the political reporter. Speficically, Mr. Packers lament:
"But political journalism—unlike war reporting—long ago stopped being about what is true or important. Sometime in the nineteen-eighties, reporters began covering politics like sports and entertainment. How many times and ways can you say that the Republican Party has descended into unreality and extremism before you lose your viewers and readers?"
My only complaint is that Mr. Packer's rhetorical question is just that; he leaves the answer to the reader. This is unfortunate because I think Mr. Packer knows what the answer is, and you should to. The answer and the problem begins with us. It has always been us. Namely, people do not particularly care about Mr. Packer's "truth" or "importance" in their consumption of political reporting. They care about their team to the extent that their team is winning, and the other is losing. In a word, Truthiness.

I'd like to spell this out a little more. I do not think it is particularly remarkable or controversial to claim that the demand for horse-race daily news-cycle reporting vastly outstrips the demand for an in-depth examination of policy. Think about the reasons why "birtherism" and "death panels" received so much breathless coverage and page views as opposed to say, the particulars of Barack Obama's biography or the political history of the individual mandate.

Now, why is that? Well, conspiratorial hysteria is what people like to buy, read and consume; and has been for quite some time. Mr. Packer is bemoaning a partly market produced outcome that unfortunately highlights the depressingly callow and unseriousness tastes of the political individual. The news media producers and consumers exist in a feedback system driven by mass interests and profit margins. People who don't like Barack Obama or the Affordable Care Act do not want (or perhaps have the capacity*) to explain their dislike for the President or the his signature legislation in policy terms. Britherism and death panels fill that void by giving non-substantive yet culturally powerful narrative of superiority and correctness (The phrase "Real Americans" comes to my mind). It allows people to rationalize their opinions without having to engage in the hard work of understanding the vocabulary and roots of our political problems and the possible policy solutions.

On October 15th, 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced the word "truthiness" on the debut of his eponymous comedy show; he defined it as a "truth" that a person claims to know from intuition only: "from the gut" or that it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. We all engage in truthiness at some time or another, especially when we form and argue our political orientation. In my mind there's nothing particularly wrong with that. To an extent, we need to form principles and ideas from our guts to begin with; you can even call it the "moral compass" if you like.

The problem is when an entire political ideology, perhaps even a major governing party begins descending into a hermetically sealed fever dream where Reagan never ever increased taxes or compromised his principles and the only way to save America is to stand athwart against the Kenyan, anti-colonial appeaser-in-chief regardless, of the validity of any of their claims. We are coming full circle to where the satire of Truthiness is now underpinning the very ideology it was trying to make light of.

*I would like to clarify by the meaning of "capacity" here. I mean to say that a number of people who oppose or perhaps aren't fully informed about the Affordable Care Act (or any other complex legislation for that matter) probably have more important things to do in their lives than master the basics of heath policy and economics.

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