Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Can Democracy survive in a post-factual world?

Catherine Rampell (Washington Post) asks When the facts don’t matter, how can democracy survive? The depressing answer is that it won't. Here are snippets showing some of Rampell's reasoning.

Americans — or, at least, a particular subset of Americans — have had enough of experts, facts, math, data. They distrust them all.

This rising cynicism, sown recklessly by opportunistic politicians, will not only make it increasingly difficult for policymakers to make good choices and govern peacefully; it could also become a significant economic challenge.

The latest evidence of this anti-evidence trend comes from a Marketplace-Edison Research Poll released last week.

The survey found that more than 4 in 10 Americans somewhat or completely distrust the economic data reported by the federal government. Among Donald Trump voters, the share is 68 percent, with nearly half saying they don’t trust government economic data “at all.”

One risk of this apparently widespread suspicion is that it could become self-fulfilling. If enough people and businesses believe the economy is secretly terrible, they will behave in ways that make it terrible — by curbing their own spending and hiring, for example.

This distrust of public data is partly, though not entirely, Trump’s fault.

At times Trump has mused that “real” unemployment is as high as 42 percent , a comically hyperbolic figure. Such comments are part of his broader narrative of numerical nihilism, a political strategy of discrediting any statistic or fact that could obstruct his path to the presidency.

Faced with poll data showing that the Republican nominee is losing ground, for example, Trump and his supporters claim that the surveys are skewed, that the reported results are just pro-Hillary Clinton propaganda, that rally crowd size is a much better predictor of an Election Day victory, la la la I can’t hear you.

Offered sober-minded, nonpartisan analyses that Trump’s fiscal plans would add trillions to deficits and jeopardize the economy, his supporters claim these assessments must be lies because (A) the analysts are biased against him, and (B) Trump would obviously never let bad things happen to the economy, duh.

In other words, ignore the experts, ignore the math, trust the message.

Or as World’s Worst Surrogate Ben Carson said Friday on MSNBC, “Let’s throw the economists out, and let’s use common sense.” Presumably Carson believes that all forms of expertise, including neurosurgical, should be similarly disposed of in favor of “common sense.”

Why do voters continue to buy this nonsense?

Yes, there are certainly times when experts and number-crunchers get things wrong; and yes, there is a fundamental numeracy deficit in this country.

This is how a democracy crumbles: not with a bang, but with data trutherism.

Math matters. And so does science. If you stop believing those statements, then you are susceptible to the demagoguery that pulls you into an alternative universe.

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