We have an immediate and short-term task: selecting a president. But when that’s out of the way we will face a longer-term and ultimately more important concern: how to ensure that we are capable of making such decisions wisely.
With fewer than a hundred days to go before Americans decide who will have access to our nuclear launch codes, command of the armed forces, and sole authority to nominate justices of the Supreme Court, attention is rightly focused on whether Donald Trump is merely suffering from a severe case of arrested development or is dangerously unhinged. This would be a moot point if Hillary Clinton were not so wildly disliked herself, but she is, so concern about Trump’s instability is something we must take seriously. Deranged or not, he could win. But no matter who wins, the election will soon be over, and then we will deal as we must with its aftermath. At that point we will need to ask the more important long-term question: How did we get to this point? Because in a deeper sense, this is no longer about Trump or Clinton: it’s about us.
The system James Madison gave us — a combination of republic (governmental structure) and democracy (how we select who will manage that republic) — is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is obvious: a Constitution that prevents undue concentration of power and prohibits government from denying us our fundamental rights. The curse is that it’s a system that requires a certain kind of citizen. If we’re going to govern ourselves, we must be knowledgeable about issues and processes and we must have the ability to weigh claims and pronouncements and sort fact from fiction.
Nothing screams “failure” more loudly than the sight of thousands of Trump supporters cheering wildly as he tells one blatant lie after another. I won’t recount them here (they’ve been widely reported); suffice it to say that PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization, found that nearly 70 percent of Trump’s claims were mostly or totally false. On another occasion, The Washington Post’s fact-checkers found that 91 percent of the Trump claims they investigated were false.
While Clinton does not lie as often, she has told her own huge whoppers (PolitiFact concluded that of the Clinton claims the organization investigated, more than one-third were mostly or totally false), a principal reason why Trump remains competitive despite being intellectually and emotionally unfit for public office. (The difference between his lies and hers is that, while Clinton’s election could bring about policies conservatives would not like, Trump’s ignorance and lack of impulse control would pose an actual threat to the nation.)
As democracy’s ultimate deciders, we need to be able to detect lies, and we need to call out those who tell them. Critical thinking (not much taught any more in even our best schools) teaches us to question things. To be skeptical. Who said it? How credible is that person in speaking about this topic? What are his or her sources? What do others say? At one level — for the scientist, the journalist, the academic, the lawyer, the psychologist — skepticism is crucial, a necessary precondition to do one’s job well. But one doesn’t need a PhD to ask questions, to refuse to swallow whatever we’re told. Voters need a good B-S detector and to take seriously what it tells them.
Social media is used to post lies as truths, radio and television talk shows scream their own contradictory versions of truth, universities protect students from hearing views that may suggest their own truths are not that true after all. In all of this, we have become numb to distinctions between fact and fiction. One of the most important attributes of a citizen, especially one with the power citizens wield in a democracy, is the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false. That is why, even after this election is behind us, the fundamental problem will remain: As millions of voters have demonstrated, we either have lost the ability to tell what is true or we no longer care. Either way, that part of the problem is not merely the person who lies but the person for whom truth and fiction are meaningless abstractions. For a democracy, that is the greater danger.
Former Republican US representative Mickey Edwards is author of “The Parties Versus the People: How To Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans” and vice president of the Aspen Institute.