05 Nov Find the Facts
(Updated November 12, 2016)
It is so very helpful to see the truth both around you and inside you. Then you’re more able to handle threats and fulfill opportunities, understand others, and make wise choices. Not finding the facts is like closing your eyes while walking on thin ice.
Facts are important at all levels, whether about an individual, a relationship, or a country. I am going to focus here on America, and comment on our politics – a departure from my usual focus on the individual, and feel free to read no further .
We had an election on November 8 – but on every day we are having a related election about an even more fundamental question:
Facts: Yes or No?
Valuing the Truth
Where do we start? By claiming our right to know what is true.
That’s no small thing these days. When fire-hosed with information, it’s hard to make sense of it, so people shrug, shake their heads, and tune out. Plus most journalism has become a fact-free zone of horserace or theater-criticism-style commentary, and false equivalence between very different things to appear balanced (“shape of the earth: opinions differ”). The truth is, many of us don’t know what the truth is.
Also, our beliefs are created and defended by loyalties to groups, grievances, and self-interest. As Upton Sinclair wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The people hunker down with others who confirm their beliefs.
So it’s vital to challenge beliefs and to ground them in reality. As the saying goes: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
I should state my own loyalties. Growing up with loving but controlling parents, I value independence and self-reliance. I was a registered Libertarian for many years, and may have read Atlas Shrugged more times (four) than Paul Ryan. Like our Founders (here’s to Hamilton), I’m for civil liberties, voting rights (obviously, for more than white male property-owners), and the rule of law. I’m deeply grateful to those who have served our country. I’m for competition on a fair field. Whether in grade school, Wall Street, Washington, or Moscow, I’m against bullies and cheats and hypocrites, and for children and the earth altogether.
I’ve recently begun my 65th lap around the sun (wow). Having lived through a lot of relevant history, I’d like to highlight some facts, both past and present.
The Human Tribe
Let’s start w-a-y back. Our current politics are grounded in the social structure of primate bands in which alphas gain and hold power, and then use that power to control resources such as food and female reproduction. In more complex forms, we see the same thing in most human hunter-gatherer bands, in which our ancestors lived for 95% of the past 200,000 years.With the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, wealth and power became even more concentrated in the hands of a few, enabling them to support warriors to enforce their rule and priests to justify it.
It’s a very old story. At any point in human history, life has been particularly good for a few people and much worse for most people. In our own time, there is less starvation and disease, but the general fact remains true around the world: great inequalities of wealth and power, along with the use of wealth to tilt the playing field to gain more power to tilt the field further to gain even more wealth. The story is the same regardless of ideology; consider communist Russia and China.
I’m not saying that all those who have wealth and power gained it unfairly. But throughout history, we see again and again the self-serving use of wealth and power by the few to confuse and frighten the many. It’s the classic pattern:
repeating the Big Lie, burying the truth or hiding it in a fogbank of disinformation, whipping up fears about “them” attacking “us,” and exploiting our vulnerability as tribal beings to grievance, anger, and payback.
Sound familiar? It’s happened a lot over the last forty years in America, and is now at a fever pitch in this election cycle.
Understandably, many people are foggy or simply wrong about what’s actually true – a lot because most media offer no factual context to the latest screaming headline. So here’s a (necessarily simplified) summary of relevant facts. If you know them already, skip to the end; I’ve included a lot of links but didn’t have time to reference every single point. Whatever my loyalties, facts are facts. See for yourself if these are true:
• The 1960’s see a swing toward civil rights, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, cultural and sexual freedom, and antiwar sentiment – all loosely associated with the Democratic party.
• In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace runs as an Independent on a platform of racial segregation and gets 14% of the vote. Richard Nixon promises law and order, and wins narrowly. He and his vice president and top aides break multiple laws and eventually leave office for prison or disgrace.
• The Republican party develops its “Southern strategy” to win over Wallace-type voters, also joining with fundamentalist groups seeking political influence over science in public schools, sexual behavior, and reproduction. (As a religious person myself, I see a vital distinction between people of faith who live in accord with their own beliefs . . . and “political fundamentalists” who enforce those beliefs on others through the power of the state.) The party becomes a coalition of wealthy elites, traditionalists, and political fundamentalists serving each other’s interests. (By “Republican” or “Democrat,” I mean the leadership and policy core of each party, not voters in general.)
• Starting in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his Congress slash taxes on the wealthy, and attack or undermine unions and other protections for blue collar workers. “Supply-side” and “trickle-down” policies have little effect themselves; running as fiscal conservatives, he and George. H. W. Bush oversee a tripling of the national debt.
• Bill Clinton becomes President in 1992. Taxes are raised on the wealthy, the economy grows strongly, and the national debt eventually starts shrinking. Running as traditionalists and moralists, Newt Gingrich and his party begin attacking longstanding traditions of governance; they shut down the government and “weaponize” legal investigations into Bill and Hillary Clinton. Gingrich is revealed as a serial adulterer, and his successor, Dennis Hastert as a child molester. Fox News starts up, joining a growing network of right-wing talk radio shows and internet sites (e.g., Drudge, Breitbart). Years of intensive investigations into both Clintons prove that . . . Bill lied about consensual sex with a White House intern. At the end of his second term, there’s a projected federal surplus of $5 trillion over the next 10 years.
• Al Gore gets half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but the result in Florida is critical for the Electoral College. There’s widespread suppression of Democratic votes in that state, but Republican election officials halt the recount, enforced 5-4 by Republican Justices on the Supreme Court, and Bush becomes President.
• After running as a “compassionate conservative,” Bush swings to the right, and cuts controls over the financial sector, taxes on the wealthy, and help for the working class. Wealth inequality grows and middle class incomes stay flat. The swerve away from facts accelerates, alarming numerous senior Bush administration officials. Having promised to be tough on national security, Bush and his team downplay repeated warnings about al-Qaeda, and on September 11, 2001, over three thousand Americans die. In 2003, US forces invade Iraq, based on false claims of ties to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction, neither of which was found. The costs of this invasion and the occupation that followed will be about 190,000 lives and 2.2 trillion dollars – plus it strained the US military and our relations with allies. Released from regulation, the financial sector implodes, triggering the Great Recession, throwing millions of people out of work. During Bush’s eight years, the projected $5 trillion surplus disappears, replaced by a doubling of the national debt.
• In 2008, the Republican party chooses Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Barack Obama becomes our first African-American President, inheriting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republican Senators continue to violate traditional norms; they filibuster nearly everything so that it now takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass just about anything, and they refuse to fill routine vacancies in Federal courts and agencies, including those related to financial industry regulation and national security. In the face of fierce opposition, Obama gets a stimulus package passed, and the US has a much stronger recovery than Europe or Japan. During his two terms, the unemployment rate drops from 9.3% to 4.9%, the private sector adds 11 million new jobs, and over 20 million people gain health insurance. By the end of his presidency, Obama’s approval rating is higher than Ronald Reagan’s was when he left office.
• The Tea Party rises, along with intensified efforts to suppress Democratic votes through ID laws, intimidation at polling sites, and other methods originally used in the South to reduce Black votes. Republican lawmakers gerrymander congressional districts to tilt the electoral playing field further, and in 2012, “Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin.” Obama (through our military) pursues and eventually kills Osama bin-Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders. Based on a prior agreement with the Bush administration, the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq insists that we withdraw our military occupation of their country; a Sunni-centered insurgency develops and gives rise to Isis. Antonin Scalia dies and in another violation of longstanding norms, Republican Senators refuse to hold a confirmation hearing on any Obama nominee, and that seat on the Supreme Court has remained vacant for over 250 days.
The Current Situation
The Republican party chooses Donald Trump to represent it as President. His businesses would compromise US security and some are backed by Russian oligarchs, and he’s supported by Vladimir Putin (former head of the KGB), whose security forces are manipulating our election to pick Trump. His loyalty to Putin and denial of Russian cyberattacks are deeply alarming to U.S. and European intelligence officials. He boasts of sexually assaulting women, and numerous women have reported him doing so. Many conservative leaders condemn Trump, including Mitt Romney, Colin Powell, and former President George H. W. Bush. He lies nearly continuously, which “fries the circuits of the media,” along with his authoritarian themes. His wealth is based on clever branding while cheating working people, ripping off investors, doing nothing for charity, and refusing to pay his share of taxes. The unemployment rate for white workers is currently 4.3%, the U.S. economy has gained 3.2 million jobs since Trump began running for President, the crime rate is approaching historic lows, and Trump’s core supporters have a median income over $70,000; white male resentment and nationalism is their primary fuel – not economic anxiety or the effects of global trade – turbocharged by alt-right and conservative media.
The Democratic party chooses Hillary Clinton, a centrist liberal who has become the most thoroughly scrutinized and thus effectively transparent Presidential candidate in our history. She’s been attacked steadily for 35 years – reaching back to charges that she wasn’t feminine enough as the Governor’s wife in Arkansas – and what’s the worst that’s been actually found? Let’s see:
• She stood by husband when he was accused (in retrospect, correctly) of adultery and wasn’t friendly toward the women he cheated with.
• Dozens of State Department employees had been killed during Bush’s two terms. Republican lawmakers refused to fund heightened security for US embassies and consulates when Clinton was Secretary of State, and internal requests for more security at our diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya were turned down by upper management in the State Department (not Clinton herself). A mob attacked the compound, and four people died. Years of Republican investigations have revealed a tragedy but not a dereliction of duty.
• Like Colin Powell, she used a private email account for State Department business. Of the tens of thousands of emails she dealt with, some were retroactively “classified” after she received them. In four years, she received one – one – email as Secretary of State that was marked “confidential” (the lowest level of classified information), and in any case, nothing secret was revealed. Even though her use of email and related servers and devices was transparent, normal, and harmless – including the ordinary erasing of her private emails after she left office – the evening news shows of the major networks have spent more time on her emails than on all policy-related coverage.
• The Clinton Foundation has spent nearly $2 billion on charitable causes. Also extensively investigated, it’s received “A” ratings from different charity watchdog groups. There’s no evidence at all of any undue influence on US policy.
• In the thousands of emails stolen by Russian security forces, it’s revealed that Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs staff and clients show her to be . . . cautious, nuanced, and committed to regulating the finance industry. That’s it. Meanwhile, her Democratic party platform is the most progressive in our nation’s history.
• Attacked and investigated for several decades, Hillary Clinton has become – surprise – guarded and careful in public while remaining warm and open in private. She’s rated by Politifact as one of our most honest politicians – and much more honest than Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump hides his finances, destroys emails and other documents against court orders, and boasts of gaming the system. While complaining about the media rigging the election, by March of this year he had received over $2 billion worth of free media. He and Republican Senator Richard Burr have “joked” that gun-owners should shoot Hillary Clinton. Senior Republican lawmakers continue to violate traditional norms that protect a democracy, and they have already vowed to hold endless hearings, to refuse to vote on her judicial appointments, and to begin impeachment proceedings – no matter how big her victory next week. Alarmed by a group of angry FBI agents leaking information to harm Clinton (with back channel ties to the Trump campaign through Rudy Guiliani), on October 28, FBI Director James Comey made an unprecedented intrusion into the election with his vague letter – widely criticized, including by senior Republican lawmakers and officials – about Clinton emails possibly being on a computer used by a former staffer (which, given the facts of her email use would have been irrelevant anyway). On November 6, after ten days of effects on the Presidential election–during which over 20 million Americans voted –, Comey reported that there was nothing new or relevant in the staffer’s emails.
Yes, this election has been “rigged” – rigged by (1) systematic Republican efforts to suppress Democratic votes through voter ID laws, eliminating polling sites, restricting voting hours, and intimidation, (2) a sustained and sophisticated campaign of interference from Russian security forces and their agents and enablers, and (3) the effects, intended or not, stemming from our own FBI. I respect fair competition on a level playing field, even if I don’t like the result (and hope that the Golden State Warriors do better this season). But if one team has to tilt the field to win, that’s a team that deserves to lose.
After everything we have been through, starting November 9, will we as a country – especially the professional centrists in the media – have learned anything at all?
Today and Tomorrow
And here we are. In this limited space, I’ve needed to leave out many details on all sides, but the factual essence is clear.
Elections have consequences. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would run the most powerful organization in the history of the world. You’ve seen the debates. Who do you think would be better at it?
More broadly, Americans are choosing one kind of policy or another – and we’ve seen the results over the past 40 years, summarized above. A Trump election means that millions of people will lose health coverage, taxes will be slashed for the richest Americans and will rise for the middle-class, efforts to slow global warming will fall apart, and much regulation of the financial sector will be eliminated. A Clinton election would mean that the gains from Obama’s presidency will be protected and expanded.
Facts alone cannot make a decision; we also need values. I have many relatives and friends who vote Republican. They have good hearts and I hope they think I do, too. I also know people who were fierce supporters of Bernie Sanders and now favor Jill Stein. I can understand someone placing an overriding value on an issue like abortion or gun ownership or libertarian principes or sending a signal to Wall Street that trumps (sorry) all other considerations.
But please consider also the recurring themes in human politics: the manipulation of confusion and fear, our vulnerabilities to grievance and anger, and the enduring power of liars, cheats, and hypocrites. I’m sick and tired of people who wave the flag but put America in peril and cut programs for veterans, whose words are righteous and moralistic but whose actions hurt vulnerable children, who despise mythical “takers” but rig the system for themselves and their buddies, who are sanctimonious in public but do dirty deeds in private.
Ask also the ancient question that cuts through the words to the deeds: cui bono: who benefits? Votes have effects. At bottom, do you want your vote to support the policies of a coalition of rich elites, political fundamentalists, and bigoted nationalists?
I don’t. That’s why I voted for Hillary Clinton. I also voted for her because I think and feel that she is a very good person, actually an amazing person to come through all that she has and still want to serve this country and its people. I would have been very glad and proud as an American and as a man if she would have been our first woman President.
May you and I and everyone else keep finding the facts. And learning from them. For our own sake, and that of others.