We Lost A Shared Reality
By Paolo von Schirach–
WASHINGTON – May be this was never true; but for a very long time many in America could argue that, whatever our political or ideological differences, we all shared the same facts based reality. We may have differed on what to do about issues and problems; but at least in a broad sense we were basing our judgments, opinions and counsel on the same facts.
Maybe it is a myth
As I said, may be deep down this was never true. Indeed, we have ample evidence that different segments of the American society for the longest time lived in different universes, with their own set of facts and related explanations.
Just to cite the most egregious example, leaders in the American South, even after the end of the Civil War that formally ended slavery, for almost a century embraced the fantasy that racial segregation was a fair and just legal and social arrangement, wisely created for the benefit of all, Whites and Blacks. They claimed that the facts on the ground demonstrated that segregation worked just fine for all parties. Nobody seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, any conflicts between the US constitutional principle of equal justice for all and statutes that clearly and openly contradicted this core principle, denying African Americans their civil and voting rights, opportunity, education, jobs, and a lot more. And this is just one example, albeit gigantic.
A shared reality
Still, despite this and other discrepancies, the American cultural and political elites seemed to base their opinions on the reassuring assumption that they were drawn from a reality we all shared and agreed with.
For many years, the media reinforced this assumption. Every evening, when the news came into millions of American homes from the three big networks, not many viewers would challenge the truthfulness of “the facts” that were presented to them by the News Anchors, (all of them serious looking, middle aged, white males), and all the other correspondents. If it was on the evening news, well, it was factual. It was the truth. Revered CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite famously signed off his daily broadcast with “And that’s the way it is” which could be interpreted as “This is the final word on this. We have told you the entire story”.
Again, may be what was presented on TV every night was not the entire truth. May be there was subtle or not so subtle editing and therefore willful manipulation in the way the events of the day were covered. But, even if this was happening, even if millions of viewers were in facts duped and fed lies, not many Americans openly doubted the truthfulness of what they watched every evening.
Customized media for true believers
Well, if we fast forward to today, we realize that we are in an entirely different world. Today we do not even pretend to have a shared reality. We have different realities, and we openly and consciously follow the one that suits us the most. When it comes to “news”, we choose to watch, read and listen to those who speak to our biases and prejudices. In the public affairs shows there is not even a pretense to be “objective”. Facts are presented selectively, with an obvious intent to spin in order to make a prepackaged point. Likewise, no effort to separate news and opinions. It is all a big stew. Worse yet, millions of people see nothing wrong with this approach to “news coverage”. The fact that the opinions we love to listen to in many if not most cases our grounded on fantasies, or at the very least serious distortion of “the facts”, is not even contemplated.
A nation of cult followers
Is this unprecedented? Well, not entirely. If we look at our past, of course here in America we always had some extreme political movements, strange cults, and weird sects that proclaimed outlandish things, often basing them on non existent “facts”. And these groups attracted some followers. But the point is that these were and usually remained fringe phenomena, with a modest following.
Now, very large sections of our society have voluntarily chosen to become the modern equivalent of cult followers who embrace a set of fantasyland theories with the absolute, unflinching certainty that they are based on “true facts”. The added corollary is usually that all those who disagree with the believers of a particular “truth” are deemed to be either stupid or evil. In many cases, they are portrayed as archenemies to be fought and neutralized.
A political view of Covid -19
An interesting example of this immersion in fantasyland is in the different way in which Americans, depending on their political orientations, look today at the still unfolding coronavirus pandemic.
What? Are there political views on the nature of the virus that caused this unprecedented health crisis? Yes, there are. And they are not confined to issues on which there can be legitimate policy disagreements; such as: how much money should be spent on testing, on emergency care, or on the development of a vaccine, who should be in charge of this and that, and the like. No, the disagreement is much more profound. it is about the nature of the disease, ans therefore on how dangerous it is, and what sorts of precautions individuals should take.
According to the website The Bulwark, here is the summary of views on the pandemic held by many (albeit not all) Republicans:
- Less than half of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is a major threat to public health.
- 63 percent of Republicans say that the extent of the coronavirus is exaggerated.
- A quarter of the public thinks that the pandemic is the result of a planned conspiracy.
- 40 percent of Republicans say COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu.
- 50 percent of Republicans say the COVID-19 death toll is an exaggeration.
- 23 percent of Republicans say masks should be worn “rarely” or “never.”
Just to pick one item from this list of truly bizarre beliefs, I do not believe that many in the medical profession would seriously argue today that Covid-19 is more or less as dangerous as the flu. Sure enough, in many cases it looks like the flu. Its symptoms are similar, and the affected patients may experience only some temporary discomfort. But we also know that the mortality of Covid-19 is much, much higher than the flu, 52 times higher according to some calculations. Besides, as of now there is no Covid-19 vaccine; whereas flu vaccines that can prevent or at least mitigate the flu symptoms do exist. Hence the covid-induced lockdowns, and the various public health measures aimed at preventing, or at least minimizing, coronavirus contagion.
So, here we go. Medical experts say something based on empirical evidence. But a segment of the population prefers to believe others who provide an entirely different analysis. The medical experts wonder how is it possible that so many Americans would hold views that are contradicted by the known facts. But they do it anyway.
Green America within reach in no time
On the other side of the political divide, we have some segments within the Democratic Party who talk about their plans to make America Green in just 15 years as a perfectly reasonable, practical and cost effective plan. They honestly believe that it is possible to transform the entire power generation and distribution system and most industries in America, the largest economy on Earth, within a relatively short period of time, with no downside and no meaningful discomfort for a nation of more than 330 million people.
And yet recent developments, such as the California blackouts caused by significant supply problems caused by deployed, and as yet imperfect, renewable electricity prove that going green, itself a worthwhile goal, will require significantly improved technologies that as of now are not available on any scale. And yet the believers dismiss this “fact”. They see no problem in implementing this fantasy based on the “fact” that we already have what it takes to engineer this most dramatic transformation. The only people who see problems –so argue the believers– are those who want to derail the green agenda, because they represent the vested interests of the fossil fuels industry and their lobbyists. So, even here the opponents of “the truth” are essentially enemies.
Well, here we are. It is a fact that large segments of our society now live in their own self-sufficient, private universes that have no interest in engaging others holding different views. They are completely impervious to fact based evidence that may contradict their beliefs. They believe what they want to believe, and proclaim that to be the facts-based truth.
There are still some pragmatists, for now
The only positive element in all this is that there still are some Americans who try to understand what the facts related to any issue or problem are. They genuinely seek to find common sense-based agreement on feasible solutions for real issues. And these people try to build coalitions and partnerships in order to advance real world practical solutions. And this is good. But it looks that the armies of the sectarian believers are growing. If this phenomenon does not stop, if the sectarians end up dominating the political and policy environment, we may face a real national crisis relatively soon.
This American Republic is founded on the (fantasy?) assumption that most citizens are generally reasonable people who will naturally seek common ground with others in order to address real life issues that affect the broader society. If this is no longer true, if we are just a bunch of warring sects proclaiming mutually exclusive “truths”, it is hard to understand how our system of government based on compromise and reaching out to others can survive.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.