(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 22, 2017.)
Dave Roberts of Vox has just published what I believe is the most important article I’ve read recently about the crisis of American democracy: America is facing an epistemic crisis: What if Mueller proves his case and it doesn’t matter? Here’s a brief summary of the piece followed by a brief commentary. (For the record I think Trump will fire Mueller.)
The essence of his argument is:
1) Republicans believe fairy tales: Pizzagate, Obama wasn’t born in the USA and wiretapped Trump, Seth Rich was assassinated by Democrats, Trump had millions of votes stolen, uranium deal is a scandal, Clinton using email account is criminal, etc.
2) There is plenty of evidence that makes it highly probable that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia meant to affect the election.
3) This leads to the following possible scenario: a) Mueller proves his case; b) Trump and right-wing media reject the evidence and invent fairy tales about the issue; and c) the Republican base believe their media.
4) In other words, the right-wing no longer accepts knowledge.
“What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that could overcome the influence of right-wing media?” Over the last two decades, conservatives have rejected the mainstream institutions which previously arbitrated factual disputes and disseminated knowledge—government, journalism, science, and the academy. Instead, the right relies on their own parallel set of institutions, especially their media ecosystem.
But the right’s institutions are not of the same kind as the ones they seek to displace. Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction. They try to separate truth from tribal interests and have developed various guild rules and procedures to help do that. They see themselves as neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice.
But the difference, of course, is that the right’s institutions don’t care about values or truths that transcend party or faction. They don’t care to be neutral arbiters; they are only concerned with spreading propaganda. Of course, the pretense for conservative media was that mainstream institutions were biased.
But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right. There is nominal separation of conservative media from conservative politicians, think tanks, and lobbyists, but in practice, they are all part of the conservative movement. They are prosecuting its interests; that is the ur-goal.
Indeed, the far right rejects the very idea of neutral, binding arbiters; there is only Us and Them, only a zero-sum contest for resources. That mindset leads to what I call “tribal epistemology” — the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.
Of course, there have always been fringe views on the right, but they were held in check by gatekeepers until “the 1990s and 2000s swept those gatekeepers away, giving the loudest voice, the most exposure, and the most power to the most extreme elements on the right. The right-wing media ecosystem became a bubble from which fewer and fewer inhabitants ever ventured.” And the evidence shows that uber partisanship is primarily on the right. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has never learned to deal with this right-wing bubble.
5) Republican politicians have no incentive to indict Trump since: a) right-wing media demands fealty to Trump; b) the base believes and leans on their politicians; and c) GOP officials, fearing a challenge from the right, pay obeisance. So they can’t cross a base who is being lied to about the Mueller investigation or anything else.
As long as Republican politicians are frightened by the base, the base is frightened by scary conspiracies in right-wing media, and right-wing media makes more money the more frightened everyone is, Trump appears to be safe. As long as the incentives are aligned in that direction, there will be no substantial movement to censure, restrain, or remove him from office.
6) So what happens if Trump is proven guilty and we can’t do anything about it?
Mainstream scholars may not think that Trump will be able to get away with firing Mueller or pardoning everyone involved. But why not? “What if facts and persuasion just don’t matter anymore?” As Roberts puts it:
As long as conservatives can do something — steal an election, gerrymander crazy districts to maximize GOP advantage, use the filibuster as a routine tool of opposition, launch congressional investigations as political attacks, hold the debt ceiling hostage, repress voting among minorities, withhold a confirmation vote on a Supreme Court nominee, defend a known fraud and sexual predator who has likely colluded with a foreign government to gain the presidency — they will do it, knowing they’ll be backed by a relentlessly on-message media apparatus.
And if that’s true, if the very preconditions of science and journalism as commonly understood have been eroded, then all that’s left is a raw contest of power.
Donald Trump has the power to hold on to the presidency, as long as elected Republicans, cowed by the conservative base, support him. That is true almost regardless of what he’s done or what’s proven by Mueller. As long as he has that power, he will exercise it. That’s what recent history seems to show.
Democrats do not currently have the numbers to stop him. They can’t do it without some help from Republicans. And Republicans seem incapable, not only of acting on what Mueller knows, but of even coming to know it.
Roberts concludes his piece by saying “we may just have to live with a president indicted for collusion with a foreign power.” But I think that’s not even the worst of it. The worst part is that society can’t survive without the assumption that people tell the truth. That is the reason why truth-telling is a universal moral imperative.
Of course, the truth will eventually find us. The climate will continue to change, people will increasingly live under a tyrannical government, environmental pollution will steadily worsen, science education will continue to degrade, immigration will end, and we will slowly become a 3rd rate technological power, open to domination by foreign powers. And in the meantime, a democratic society won’t survive if its citizens, who vote on important issues, are systematically misinformed and lied to.
Moreover, once the battle is for power alone, once there is no forum for rational discourse to adjudicate between competing views, force and fraud will be all that’s left. Some will come to increasingly dominate, others to further submit. We will all live in a Hobbesian state of nature. As long as those who have usurped power can hold it, as long as their opponents are not relative power equals, the powerful will succeed. But then they will live in a state of war too, forced to continually look over the shoulder for the next coup. I wonder if that’s really in their self-interest?