Sat Aug 12th, 2006 at 05:46:36 PM EST
US comic Stephen Colbert has coined the word truthiness as something that people just know is right without needing facts to back it up.
There seems to be a rise in this quality in the US these days. Many have already noted that a large number of people don't believe in Darwinism (about 40% or more). This is much higher than in any other industrialized country. This is strongly correlated with support for the Republican party and strong religious affiliation.
Recently there have been several new outbreaks of truthiness.
[Dkos version (with poll)]
One is the surge in the number of people who think that the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was part of a government conspiracy. A release of a video laying out the case seems to have also helped to increase the number of conspiracy theorists.
Other examples have to do with the war in Iraq. Common beliefs include that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, that some of the hijackers were Iraqi and that Iraq had (has?) WMD's. The last claim was even made by Senator Santorum.
The lack of evidence for these claims is often used as "proof" that they are true; only a conspiracy could explain the lack of evidence.
So what's going on?
I think there are several things at work.
- People have seen so many examples of misinformation by the government in the past few years that they are ready to believe the worst. A good example was the spin put on what happened in the Gulf before and after hurricane Katrina. People could see for themselves the gross incompetence and hear the denials of failures by government officials.
- There has been a history of questionable events used as an excuse for starting a war. The two most frequently cited are the "Remember the Maine" incident in Cuba which started the Spanish-American war and the Gulf of Tonkin incident used to launch the Vietnamese war. Just recently documents were unclassified which proved that the Gulf of Tonkin incident didn't happen as reported.
- There is a need to build a new mythology for those who support or supported the war in Iraq. The prior argument that the US needed to invade in case Iraq had WMD's is no longer emotionally satisfying. It is much better to believe that WMD's existed and that this fact has been suppressed so that the morality of the war is acceptable. If this requires ignoring facts, so be it.
What all this illustrates, in my opinion, is a turning away from the current administration. Rather than believe that they were lied to about the facts people prefer to believe they were lied to as part of a conspiracy. This allows for continued acceptance of the fundamental dependence on the conservative, strong father model, it's just that some in the present administration are untrustworthy. A future group of leaders with the same worldview will arrive and restore faith in their trustworthiness, perhaps they will even release the details of the various conspiracies.
Does this mean that a change in majority party is going to occur? I'm not a political analyst or a fortune teller, but I would say that if it is going to happen it will be without the support of the followers of truthiness. So much of their emotional framework depends upon faith in a hierarchical society that moving to independent evaluation of information is not something that they are likely to undertake. So, if change comes it will have to be because those who haven't been paying attention decide a change is needed. (Opponents to the administration are already for change, so their positions are established.)
From a practical point this means that those on the left who want to see change need to focus on the "undecided" voters who need a clear set of goals or ideals that a Democratic majority government will support. There also need to be promises as to exactly what steps will be undertaken to reach these objectives. Arguing with the followers of truthiness is a waste of time. Concentrate on those who are looking for a new direction instead. The dependence on mass media to reach the undecided means that demeanor and an emotional connection with the voter must also be a quality that candidates possess. There isn't just one type which fits this need, it can be a person with passion like John Edwards, or someone who seems upright and trustworthy like Wesley Clark, but a person who comes across as on top of the issues, but emotionally distant won't appeal to this group. It may be sad, but it seems to be true that voters now want their elected officials to be an "American Idol".
Can the forces of rationality overcome those of truthiness? History shows examples of both outcomes. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are examples where rationality lost out. Some of the emerging democracies in South America give hope that rationality can also succeed.