Liberal Democracy in Question

Land of the Free… to Pick Your Own Reality

How the Left and the Right Select Their Own Facts

It is now a tired cliché to point out that the unexpected election of Donald Trump has revealed the depth of the political and cultural fault lines dividing Americans. Many analysts have urged going beyond the simplistic “racist versus multicultural” lenses often used to interpret the surprising electoral dynamics at play last November. Some invoke instead explanations that hinge on the rejection of the neoliberal elite, or reactions against a reduction of the political to certain forms of identity politics that obscure rather than complement a much needed discourse along class lines. Others rightly attribute much of the blame to the obliviousness of the Democratic establishment to these new dynamics.

Yet, given how plainly xenophobic the rhetoric of the Trump campaign was, how happily it flirted with white supremacist groups, and how unapologetically put forward fascist proposals, the racist element cannot just be waved away. As many have put it in the aftermath of the election, maybe not all Trump voters are racists, but plain racism was not a deal breaker for them. This is indeed a simple factual observation that is unnerving. In this sense every single vote for Trump is a failure, whether coming from the true hard-core white supremacists or from defeated, working-class folks so disillusioned with the same old elite discourse that anything — literally anything — seemed better to them. The capacity of half of the voters to look the other way, to ignore Trump’s violent, racist proposals, to look past his lack of any specific program beyond divisive provocations, has been traumatically dismaying to the other half: the half that was “with her,” that sees itself as inclusive and respectful of diversity, informed by reason and accepting of scientific facts, and, well, so much more “reasonable” than “the other side.” For it is indeed hard to fathom how anybody can vote for a proto-fascist fear monger, a climate change denying billionaire who is transparently out to help himself and his rich friends at the expense of everybody else, while claiming any kind of rational thinking.

While this is difficult indeed, the only problem with this self-serving view is that those who were “with her” have been guilty of the very same willful disregard for facts, and, just like their much-reviled Republican counterparts, have been weaving their own personal alternate reality for themselves. Both sides have been picking what they want to see and what they want to pretend does not exist, or did not happen.

So, we saw liberals on a grotesque campaign to sell the idea that the woman who recalls landing under sniper fire in Bosnia when actually she was greeted with flowers, the woman who went to such great lengths to conceal the content of speeches she was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to deliver to her friends from the big banks and had nothing better to say than “that’s what they offered” to justify such fees, the woman who needs a public and private position on every issue, was fundamentally trustworthy, maybe even the most trustworthy politician today. While I appreciate the fact that other career politicians might be equally slimy, and that Secretary Clinton may often be more harshly criticized than others because she is a woman, the fact remains: she is a slimy career politician, and selling her as fundamentally trustworthy was absurd on its face. This cheerleading exercise was at times so bizarre that it bordered on comedy.

In liberal circles, Clinton’s experience was touted as unparalleled and used as the basis to argue that we should hand her the job. But let us examine her experience more closely. It is no secret that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State,was one of the strongest voices in the Obama administration pushing for military intervention in Libya in 2011, with consequences nothing short of disastrous. She had evidently not learned a thing from her support for the ill-advised and ill-planned invasion of Iraq. Removing the dictator will take care of everything, said the warmongers then, with the dramatic human consequences of more than a decade of a crippling war, a country left in shambles, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. It seems that even by 2011 Hillary Clinton hadn’t learned a thing from this experience. In the wake of Qaddafi’s death she bombastically boasted that “we came, we saw, he died” in predictably psychopathic fashion. Predictably given her role models: Madeleine Albright, who thought the death of an estimated half million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions “was worth it,”[1] and Henry Kissinger, who happily extended a helping hand to military coups and to the subsequent Condor operations that ushered an era of unspeakable terror across South America for over a decade. She gloated about Qaddafi’s death with no apparent concern for the chaos and destruction that were to come as a result of yet another disastrous and ill-advised American military intervention in the Middle East. As we know, ISIS was to fill the subsequent power vacuum at a devastating human cost.

Recently the UN warned that the US backed Saudi military campaign in Yemen, particularly vicious by all accounts, will likely result in mass starvation in the region due to specific targeting of the food supply. It is worth remembering that it was under Secretary Clinton that a record 29 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, arguably one of the most brutal regimes on Earth, was sealed. This was just part of an exponential increase in arms deals with repressive regimes under the tenure of Secretary Clinton. I take it as less-than-incidental that many of these nations, including Saudi Arabia, had generously contributed to the Clinton foundation in the years preceding these deals. We could go on and on discussing the dark side of her long career, from her role in supporting the Three Strikes legislation that fueled the 90’s prison boom,[2] to her support of the coup in Honduras that plunged that country into yet another atrocious wave of violence and human rights abuse.[3] On a factual basis, it seems to me that Hillary Clinton was never somebody that one should have been proud to support.

Yet, most enthusiast Hillary supporters are well-meaning folks, people who would condemn any one of these things but were nevertheless somehow able to ignore them. The mental contortions and exercises of self-delusion necessary to perform such a feat are not unlike those necessary to pretend that Trump is not racist, or that he will miraculously become a champion of the working class. Both attitudes fly in the face of evidence, but both respond to the psychological need to stick to the narrative of your circle, your tribe.

The facts put forth above, which in my view disqualify Hillary Clinton, should in no way be characterized as a quixotic quest for purity. We do not need purity, but basic decency shouldn’t be too much to ask. Basic decency, however, was not on the menu — the menu presented to us by the mainstream media, at least — and neither one of the main candidates could possibly be voted for in good conscience. I state this as a simple acknowledgement of fact, even if I know that many will angrily reject it.

In my view, to be able to partake in the general election you had to either tell yourself a story, distorting facts to make your candidate more palatable to yourself, or commit the capital social sin of considering third party candidates (and by that I mean, decency remaining a criterion, considering a vote for Jill Stein) and thus being branded an irresponsible spoiler who doesn’t care who the next president will be. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Jill Stein are free of faults or “pure” in any way. But they are decent people who tried to articulate a genuine concern for common folks. We can argue at length about their limitations, but these shortcomings are not of the same nature as those of Trump or Hillary, who, let us not pretend otherwise, are both rotten to the core. I do not mean by this to suggest that they are the same, or that a Trump presidency will be no different than a Clinton presidency would have been. Obviously there is a sea of difference, particularly domestically and that is why I would have, selfishly, far preferred a Clinton presidency. I say selfishly because I live in the United States, and a Clinton presidency would have been much less traumatic for people living within its borders. It is not as clear, though, that it would have been less painful for the rest of the world. But the fact that these two candidates are not “the same” is beside the point. What I want to point out is how the supporters of both candidates have been looking the other way and picking their facts, their realities, in an eerily similar fashion.

In presenting (in what can only be seen by the outside observer as a comically surreal display) Hillary as fundamentally honest, as a beacon of integrity and a champion for common folks, while viciously vilifying those looking for an alternative, the “I’m with her” crowd did not act any more rationally than the folks who, despite his fascist stances, voted for Trump just because they disliked Hillary. Let us stop pretending that a Clinton voter is fundamentally “better” than a Trump voter. You can let go of the grandstanding and the judging of the other side: you are not as different as you think.

Even more disturbing and worrisome, this dynamic of self-delusion is not simply a symptom of election fever. It permeates most current political discourse. While the climate change deniers, young Earth defenders, and trickle down economics enthusiasts cling to beliefs that fly in the face of evidence and articulate positions that seem to either be held in bad faith or to border on insanity, the way the left engages any kind of dissent is often disturbingly similar, ignoring or denying whatever doesn’t fit a pre-established orthodox narrative. I will leave alone the tedious exercise of articulating specific examples for now, but anybody who routinely follows threads of any political consequence on social media probably knows what I am talking about: the calling out and shaming, the throwing of invectives and labels at anything that can remotely be seen as a threat to that circle’s main talking points.

The narratives are different across the political spectrum, but each “tribe” has its own, and the protection of the bubble’s integrity is the first duty of the tribe. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. This seems like a truism, but it states something foreign to our current social predicament, where the manufacture of pseudo-facts and the obscuring of other, less convenient facts seems to be the new favorite American pastime. We will not move forward until we learn to consider in good faith ideas that do not feed into our existing ways of thinking, until we can listen to more than what we want to hear, until we start bursting our bubbles.

Footnotes:

[1] Unsurprisingly, Secretary Albright has since repeatedly disavowed the comment — a moment of candor that would of course be whitewashed as “I misspoke.”

[2] On this and more on her positions that disproportionately affected African-Americans negatively see here.

[3] The coup unsurprisingly produced a wave of refugees, including a large number of desperate children of which she would say: “We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”

 

 

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Frédéric Mynard

  • Emmryss

    But surely every indictment you’ve laid against Hillary Clinton stemming from her tenure as Secretary of State could just as well be brought against Barack Obama. She served, after all, in his administration. Yet when Barack Obama first ran for President himself, a junior senator from Illinois, who would have called him anything less than “decent,” to say the very least.

    • Fred

      Yes, indeed. As an eloquent junior senator carrying a message of change and hope, Obama seemed “decent”, and at the time there seemed to be a number of reasons to endorse him with some enthusiasm, which many did. It turned out that he was just another puppet of Wall Street, more talented for lofty speeches than many of his peers, but no different than other career politicians in his goals and mode of operation. It is hard to accuse people who backed him enthusiastically in his first run of self-delusion for simply giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he was talking in good faith. I definitely do not blame them. His second run was a different story…
      At any rate, my larger point is not about Hillary per se. Her case serves merely as an illustration of the psychological mechanism of self-delusion to protect the integrity of the narrative of the group one wants to identify with. The rhetoric around Obama, or the self-delusion of Trump supporters, work just as well to make this point. But given the self-righteousness with which Hillary supporters condemn Trump voters, Hillary’s case was particularly relevant. There is a million reasons to fight Trump’s projects and announced policies, and there is lots to do to counter the most disastrous of them. Pointing fingers at voters is not one of the most constructive ones, when fingers can be pointed in all directions.

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