Feelings Don't Care About Your Facts
PART 3: Or why facts are secondary to context and narrative.
This should be self-evident in 2023, but Trumpism is an appeal to passion, not reason. He presents a surface with no handle, a wall without a door. Polemic doesn’t work and neither does the snarky I-know-what-you-don’t-know-so-lemme-educate-you-about-the-facts tone that has come to dominate #resistance prose. You can explain to your hopelessly boomer relatives that illegal border crossing apprehensions have steadily fallen for two decades, or undocumented immigrants commit less crime, or immigration is a net positive to the economy, or that all the captures and expulsions at the Southern border are actually a sign of Biden’s border policies working as intended—but they don’t care, no matter how many Last Week Tonight segments you retweet. Die-hard MAGA chuds are enveloped with horror stories of unassailable and rape-happy Mexicans because this narrative contextualizes their underlying feelings: That their way of life is under siege. Voters don’t need Politifact to know what Trump is about. The big man will take care of them by brandishing a power that is wholly negative, not really helping them as much as he punishes people they don’t consider to be Real Americans.
Liberals scrambled to counter George W. Bush’s warmongering and Constitutional violations with a Daily Show methodology: Play a soundbite of a politician making a statement, then reference a scientific body or government agency that undermines the claim, or run a different clip of said politician saying something contradictory or foolish. Dubya remained unscathed despite Jon Stewart’s camera mugging; he was ultimately undone by bungling Katrina and presiding over a global economic shipwreck, not by an assault of liberal mockery and “pants on fire” verdicts. Similarly, Teflon Don was vanquished because he spent all of 2020 forfeiting the requisite work of confronting a global pandemic and instead decided to bluster through slapdash performances of executive seriousness. Biden coasted on an overwhelming wave of negative partisanship to win far more votes than any candidate in American history , not because a substantial chunk of the core MAGA base realized that Trump is a fudge-brained huckster who kept getting his dick stuck in the fax machine.
The idea of Objective Truth, at least colloquially, tends to be conflated with facts. A few years ago, William Saletan wrote in Slate that our polarized world is best explained as “people who care about basic facts vs. people who don’t.”
“Trump and his acolytes don’t just spin facts; they completely disregard them. They repeat fantastic lies about election fraud, and when they’re confronted with contrary evidence, they’re not even embarrassed.
If we don’t get control of this — if we don’t reestablish an ethic of respect for facts — nothing else will be solved. We can’t extinguish the virus if tens of millions of Americans insist it’s a hoax and refuse to be vaccinated or wear masks. We can’t restore public faith in election results and put down insurrectionism if half the population refuses to believe anything the media report. Repairing the consensus that facts must be respected won’t settle our debates on spending, education, or criminal justice. But without that consensus, the crisis we’re in will get much worse.”
It is plainly observable that a considerable faction of the MAGA base is a frenzied, subliterate mass of feral swine who have sunk into schizophrenic solipsism because they are as capable of self-determination as an infant holding a fork and waddling toward an electrical outlet. They hold forth in their slackjawed antipathy, unable to discern the difference between a well-substantiated argument and Trump raving patently falsifiable claims. To them, both are blurred into a miasma of equivalent partisan hackery. But this liberal hyperfixation on facts misdiagnoses a broader fundamental problem: There is a deep cynicism in America that has convinced people that the media, the government, and corporations are all lying to them at any available opportunity.
One of the core dynamics in American politics is that economic and political elites see the world almost entirely differently than normal people, and there is no better case study for this than inflation. According to consistent polling, the public thinks inflation is high and getting worse, and that Biden has done very little to address any of their problems. The economy looks, by conventional metrics, as if it’s doing well: Unemployment is low, inflation is down, consumer spending is rolling along, and certain manufacturing areas are booming. But establishment economists, like Paul Krugman, will write columns lamenting over normal people’s negative and erroneous perception of the economy, even if America circa-now is “doing swell.” Numbers that are deliriously fudged are presented to the public seemingly as a dare. I’ve seen White House officials interviewed on CNBC, trying to dazzle viewers with charts and reams of appendices and analyses that show the economy is buzzing, as if they have a talismanic power.
As monopoly expert Matt Stoller has noted, the tools that the political class uses to understand inflation are broken and misleading them. For example, the Consumer Price Index only measures the rate of price increases, not the total cost of goods; if a $14 sandwich increases to $15 instead of $17, the CPI would indicate that inflation is down, even as prices remain high. The price of money is also not directly included in inflation metrics: The Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates over the last few years, which has increased credit card rates, mortgage rates, auto financing, and corporate and government borrowing costs. Groceries are more expensive than they were a few years ago; junk fees are piled on to everything from airfares to concert tickets; a 20% tip is the new minimum for any service. The theory of “greedflation” arose after the pandemic to explain why prices were skyrocketing, and eventually, scholars and Federal Reserve officials began releasing data confirming that record-high corporate profits explained roughly 60% of inflationary increases. If people feel like they’re being ripped off, their sentiments on the economy will reflect their anger over being grifted and fear over increasing uncertainty about future prices, despite all the “objective” facts suggesting these are boom times.
There’s an unreality to everything. High-frequency trading, influencers, speculation, valuation — all of it is premised on illusions and marketing and self-promotion. The housing market isn’t about providing shelter or solving homelessness; it’s about hedge funds and speculators. Universities aren’t about pursuing potential or self-actualization through the accumulation of knowledge; they’ve become luxury brands and networking clubs and glorified credentialing programs that launder privilege and turn young people into lifelong debtors. Healthcare isn’t about preventing or treating illnesses; it’s a bloated morass of parasitic insurance cartels and pharma companies that act as portfolio management companies instead of drug development firms. The AI revolution isn’t about unleashing human creativity or liberating us from pointless drudgery; it’s about shaving overhead to further pad bottom lines and executive pay. Many news sites aren’t about news; they’re about tricking us into clicking on advertisements that turn every article into a janky UX albatross.
This kind of predatory, extractive capitalism is a breeding ground for mistrust and paranoia, the idea of the invisible hand creating the abient sense that everyone is out for themselves and trying to get one over you. It’s not surprising that myths of secret tunnels underneath pizza parlors and QAnon have gone viral when capitalism is actually bleeding us dry—our money, our labor, our time, our data.
Current events have also escalated into rapidly refreshing cycles of interminable absurdity, and the delineation between conspiracy theory and genuine conspiracy has all but completely evaporated. Jack Bratich, a Rutgers University communications scholar with a focus on conspiracies, explains:
“Liberal investments in individualism result in thinking of powers as residing in individuals and groups rather than structures. Without an analysis of capital or class, they default to the stories the West tells itself about the power of the individual to change the world. But hero narratives easily flip into villain narratives.”
America’s exhausting public life is proof that, for conspiracy theorists, politics is a wonderland of forums in which to become upset without ever challenging the hyper-individualism that is at the heart of so many of our present crises. There is something perfectly apposite about all the gratuitous, thirsty, unreasoning tantrums throughout a rampaging pandemic becoming a childish parody of collective action, a photographic negative of itself. The anti-vaxx/plandemic gambits were so oafishly overdetermined and under-reasoned, their conspiracy theories mirrored a high-handed and begrudging deference to power structures, and blithely secure in pinning the blame for society’s ills on singularly malignant individuals: Soros, Fauci, Gates. And the broader national failure to manage or even really confront the pandemic never entered a baroque phase, really; it was a series of tragicomic pivots and clammy promos. Trillions were spent to backstop markets and bail out multinationals, only for workers to be laid off in droves. Billionaires have increased their wealth at a stratospheric rate, even as they have gouged consumers and fuelled a cost-of-living crisis.
Whatever Red Dawn-ish guise comes to the fore in this crushingly anxious present, these conspiratorial explanations are a mishmash of useful affirmations and secret tenets revealing themselves as incoherent, and the sheer volume of these various conflicting beliefs arrives with such a roaring and furious confluence that it obliterates any legible politics. One of the signatures of Facebook Brain is that it is hopelessly recursive, how the load-bearing “some people are saying” is only ever deployed as a self-defense that cancels or contradicts its last fantastical explanation. But in a broader seething story, these people now have both the capacity and the incentive to perform these beliefs. In a society that signals, in a million brutally overt wats, that your life does not really count for very much, it is easy in the abstract to see the appeal of being able to opt into something a little more significant, even if that means making these goofy-vile beliefs everyone else’s business all the time. There was no need to talk about vaccine “apartheid” when there was a stark gap in vaccination rates between rich and poor countries. The kooks blinkered and vain enough to consider their choice to remain unvaccinated as somehow the same thing as being trapped in Covid “internment camps” likely never considered how or why the virus was left to rip through prisons, meat packing plants, and Amazon warehouses.
These conspiracy theories are intoxicating and deranging, and the politics that they profess are not about helping anyone, or really about any kind of ideological program at all. However, they reliably shift attention away from business scandals in plain sight, enumerating an obsessive and even loving taxonomy of and fixation upon enemies and problems. Depending on what quarters of the internet you inhabit, the belief that Brittney Spears is mind-controlled by MK Ultra is granted the same level of legitimacy as the argument that a media and political symbiosis pushed a bogus Weapons of Mass Destruction narrative to justify an illegal invasion of Iraq. In a solipsistic digital realm where language and meaning are both vague and vast, systemic critiques of unaccountable economic power and lurid narratives of woke globalist perfidy have spiraled into dizzying righteousness and fuming derangement.
A few years ago, the Washington Post released a quiz titled, “Will you fall down the conspiracy rabbit hole?” and the whole thing felt like it was specifically constructed to chide any reader for assuming that American institutions are corrupt and prioritize the interests of the ultra-rich over anything else. The quiz verified events like the Tuskegee Experiment—which involved the government allowing hundreds of Black men in Macon County, Alabama to suffer the effects of syphilis as part of a human guinea pig medical experiment—or that Ronald Reagan sold weapons to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras, or that the CIA conducted mind control experiments with LSD in the 1960s, or that the CIA kept tabs on Martin Luther King Jr., or that fossil fuel companies like Exxon knew about climate change for decades but spread misinformation to deflect blame and influence environmental policies. Then, it will dismiss the possibility that powerful families or interests would influence public policy through their wealth and connections, and of course, reject the idea that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered.
In a culture that is theatrically authority-positive, the purveyors of rationality take a high- and heavy-handed approach to consensus containment, and they show us every day that their vested interest is to keep us believing establishment spin so we remain pliant to their pageantry bullshit. From their perspective, a realist would agree that the U.S. government and American corporations have committed horrific atrocities in the name of preserving profits and global hegemony, but this is no longer the case because there is more oversight and accountability. Meanwhile, the mechanisms of oligarchy are flaunted annually. Billionaires, heads of state, A-list celebrities, journalists, and members of various royal families gather every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or in Manhatten at the Clinton Global Initiative; Google even runs an invitation-only “summer camp” in Sicily that includes anyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Katy Perry. In every case, they take up the mantle of solving the world’s problems—climate breakdown, hunger, wealth inequality, infectious diseases—with no mandate and no public involvement.
Some questions that weren’t included in the quiz were whether the U.S. government lied to start a war in the Middle East or even any mention of a giant economic collapse that was responded to by a bipartisan recapitalization of the very bankers who caused it—both of which are in the living memory of most adults. This provided a backdrop for disaffected voters to absolve Trump for his babbling incoherent fabrications. With a fabulist’s blithe intuition, it took the biggest asshole in the 2016 Republican primary to point out that Jeb Bush is a feckless dweeb and the remaining priggish frogs running for president were frauds with blood-soaked records.
The debate over facts and fake news and conspiracy theories rightly critiques the pernicious anti-democratic dangers of social media concentration within Silicon Valley, but in an utterly dumbed-down and convoluted way that mostly proffers to cede authority to Big Tech to dictate what is or isn’t true. The aim of fact-checking has a laudable purpose — calling out politicians when they’re playing fast-and-loose with information. But fact-checkers, with all their independent biases and motivations, cannot be neutral arbiters of truth. “Ideology never announces itself as ideology,” Anne Helen Peterson writes. “It naturalizes itself.” Placing an overbearing and unwavering faith in the powers of fact-checking can prompt cynical media apparatchiks to smuggle subjective commentaries through various syntactic guises that manipulate certain realities.
In 2019, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, awarded Bernie Sanders a “mostly false” rating for claiming there are half a million medical-related bankruptcies a year — the Vermont Senator was relying on published research from the American Public Health Association. Earlier that year, when Sanders asserted that “millions of Americans” work multiple jobs, the Post labeled the statement “misleading,” even though the first sentence of Kessler’s rebuke literally reads: “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job.” The Incercept’s Ryan Grim has compiled a list of the Post’s “unbiased” criticisms on the left. Whatever this is, it isn’t fact-checking, even if it awards epic Pinocchios to Donald Trump after that one time he said he slept with Miss America in 1987.
Fact-checking without any deeper contextualization amounts to a peanut gallery of pedantic sticklers doing slavish stenography and pointless quibbling. Hume’s Law discusses the gap between facts and values: A person cannot derive a moral or political conclusion from strictly factual premises. Americans are entitled to healthcare is a subjective claim, even if facts are deployed to substantiate why and how someone would reach this conclusion or disagree with the premise. Simply put, one cannot derive an ought from an is. Factual statements can yield moral truths or instruct us on how to achieve certain goals, but they can’t tell us which truths or goals to care about.
In late 2018, the Mercatus Institute, a Koch-funded libertarian think tank, published a study that found Medicare-for-All would cost the federal government $32 trillion over the next decade. The obvious purpose of the report was to present a whopping price tag that would illustrate a massive government expenditure in a disingenuous way. Single-payer supporters proffered some counter spin, noting that if you trudge deeper into the report, it also found that both private and public spending would decrease by $2 trillion in that same timeframe. By their analysis, Americans would save money through the elimination of premiums, deductibles, and co-pays once private insurance is transferred into a more cost-effective national healthcare system. As Dylan Scott of Vox noted at the time, this sparked a furious wonk spat over facts and figures, which obfuscated a larger debate about how Medicare-for-All would be achieved and what its trade-offs would entail: Questions like, whether the necessary tax hike to fund a single-payer system is politically tenable (depends on the framing), or will the overall per capita savings and degree of care would offset the increase in federal spending (it does).
This healthcare proxy war wasn’t a disagreement over facts. The contention was over values and priorities. The mainstream press is already inclined to accept Republican talking points as de facto reality — honing in on the costs of universal social programs while hesitating to elaborate on their benefits—but they are now tasked with adjudicating an escalating debate over not just an unprecedented overhaul of American healthcare, but a renegotiation of this nation’s social contract.
This obsession with facts is the apotheosis of the liberal trajectory. It is encapsulated in West Wing where half the dialogue was just neurotic nerds reciting statistics to each other as if they all shared Aaron Sorkin’s coke-brain. Facts are second-order to context, narrative, and broader arguments. Standalone data points mean very little without an overarching story and framework to understand power, policy, and socio-economic trends. Language has failed liberals because it is varied, has connotations, and doesn’t have any fixed meanings. Language is also how moral visions and narratives are communicated, which liberalism has completely botched, leaving them to grab onto bare facts like Ishmael to the coffin. Liberal discourse is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers except wine moms stroll down the street with a “Nasty Woman” shirt and a “Covfefe” mug shouting, “DESPITE RISING PREMIUMS, OBAMACARE HAS EXPANDED COVERAGE TO 30 MILLION AMERICANS, SO PLEASE FACT CHECK THE REPUBLICAN DEATH PANEL SMEARS BECAUSE THE DEMOCRATS GIVE AMERICANS ACCESS AND AFFORDABILITY!!”
By embracing this meticulously hedged and carefully tranched language to compliment a narrative of dampened expectations and diminished horizons, liberals have pegged their policy positions to appeal to a fictitious Long Island family that almost certainly would have voted for Trump. Their flabby and inert expressions are not just a stylistic problem. It is an intellectual and ideological one—an ability not just to speak but also to think and act in forceful ways. This signals toward something worse and more worrying than haplessness; it suggests a decadent and supremely dangerous abstraction and a fundamental misunderstanding of what politics is for. The Democrats are morally incoherent and procedurally feckless, negotiating themselves into oblivion while convincing themselves that they are respectful of the process and practitioners of the possible. All of this, of course, is data-driven and focus-group-tested and grounded in facts. The end product is a Democratic Party that is arguably to the right of Richard Nixon on most economic issues and committed to performative allyship and a largely symbolic social justice agenda to mask it. Their entire brand pitch is: Capitalism is good because it gives us Pride Month sponsored by Bank of America.
As movement conservatism has plunged toward star-spangled fascism, libs have trailed behind with their polite concerns while convincing themselves that tacking to the right was the only way to reverse this fatalistic rightward slide. And from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, this kind of fact-based Third Way triangulation has resulted in deregulating the airline and trucking industries, signing over health insurance to private companies, “welfare reform,” ballooning the prison population, a telecomms bill that fuelled media consolidation, legitimizing and flattering racist impulses by calling black men “superpredators,” demolishing the firewall between commercial and investment banking that set up the stage for a global financial crash, protecting Wall Street after a public looting that tanked the global economy, expanding the War on Terror and the surveillance state, stamping a Democratic imprimatur on the worst of Bush-era policies, losing a presidential election to a deranged game show clown, and now, haplessly watching a Supreme Court gut abortion rights while at least indirectly facilitating thousands of violent deaths in Gaza. So it’s easy to see the cheesy meliorism and pathologically passive electoral jiujitsu as a self-justifying rationalization of sorts from a party that has lost so much for so long.
Partisan voters of the Blue Team have gazed into the abyss and punctured the membranes of their psyches. Now they spend their days barking into the void, punching out a Mobius strip of tweets and sharing New York Times op-eds that are Infowars-level conspiracies about devious Kremlin plots. They are safe inside their own heads, safe from the world that their dull, smug, dead-end politics have wrought. There is certainly a rich vein of helplessness running through the Democratic Party’s tendency to settle for kludge-y, insufficient, better-than-nothing half-measures that might benefit some people in a clever double-banked fashion. These usual tactics are vague and qualified and means-tested under normal circumstances, but under, say, scattershot pandemic mismanagement, they are terrifyingly insufficient when deployed in response to big business and reactionary ghouls opting into a mini-holocaust in the best interests of Getting The Economy Going.
For as pragmatic and realistic as libs think they are, in practice, their political project is a cascading series of desperate improvisations that dilute any ideological potency the Democratic Party once had. All that can really be expected out of a Blue Administration is that they won’t appoint another member of Opus Dei to the Supreme Court, along with some clever nudges and subtle tweaking and tinkering around the margins. Their lack of vision reduces their best shot at power down to stumbling through the door after whatever grotesque catastrophe befalls America thanks to Republican governance. Facts are no substitute for values, vision, and moral clarity. The Democratic Party as currently constructed is incapable of altering the long-term trajectory of the health of this planet or the relationship between labor and employer or big business ratfucking the broader economy. All that is left is cope and delusion with a data point to back it up.