If you occasionally feel like you are binge-watching history, you are not alone. These are remarkable times for both our politics and our culture, and the stakes seem to be rising all the time. It is not merely that social norms are routinely shattered; it often feels as if the rules do not matter at all anymore.
Even before the end of the last presidential campaign, it was obvious that we had entered a post-factual era in politics. This was, after all, a campaign in which a presidential candidate trafficked in “scoops” from The National Enquirer and openly suggested that his rival’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy—and got away with it. But, if anything, the pace seems to be accelerating, as cable networks, radio hosts and websites continue to peddle bizarre conspiracy theories even after they have been debunked.
At one time, really not that long ago, our culture, institutions and traditions provided guardrails for our politics, limiting the impact of the most dishonest or most reckless voices. But in the age of social media, those rails are gone, along with the gatekeepers of fact. The result is that we now find ourselves awash in fabulism, fake news and outright lies, some of them coming from the White House itself. Indeed, even as we wrestle with our political divisions, one of the most consequential questions we now face is whether truth matters anymore. This is no longer a theoretical question for postmodern academics. It is increasingly an existential question for our democracy.
I keep coming back to a tweet from the Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who wrote: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” Mr. Kasparov understands that the real threat of the flood of “alternative facts” is that many voters will simply shrug, ask, “What is truth?” and, like Pontius Pilate, not wait for an answer.
We might assume that people naturally want to seek out information that is true, but this turns out to be a basic misunderstanding of the human psyche and our new tribal politics. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the power of tribalism in shaping our ideas about truth. “Once people join a political team,” he writes in The Righteous Mind, “they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult — perhaps impossible — to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them from outside the matrix.”
Mr. Haidt also cites the work of his fellow social psychologist Tom Gilovich, who studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. If we want to believe something, Mr. Gilovich says, we ask, “Can I believe it?” and we need only a single piece of evidence, no matter its provenance, so “we can stop thinking” because we “now have permission to believe” what we want. The flip side is that when we are confronted with uncomfortable or unwanted information that we do not want to believe, we ask, “Must I believe?” and look for a reason to reject the argument or fact. Again, only a single piece of data is necessary “to unlock the handcuffs of must.”
As a talk show host, I saw this first hand. When then-candidate Donald J. Trump claimed “thousands” of American Muslims had celebrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many of my listeners believed them — because they wanted to. This suggests that the solution (if there is one) lies less in the media than in ourselves. Fake news, like politicians who deceive, will remain a fact of life. The only antidote is an educated, critically minded electorate who can see through the hoaxes and separate fact from propaganda. But, most important, we need a citizenry that believes that truth matters — and matters urgently.
The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.