Obama vs Romney: Election 2012 Will Be Decided by Sound Bytes, Not Facts

Most people don’t trust the mainstream media, and perhaps justifiably so. A Washington Post fact-checker recently called a WaPo columnist a liar. When editor Fred Hiatt hired this possibly perfidious ex-Bush speechwriter, he explained that “it’s good to have other points of view represented,” and that the columnist “makes some strong arguments.”

In the era of post-truth politics, strong arguments tend to matter more than facts. Every politician and TV talking head has a voice, and everyone is vocalizing at the same time. This creates more cacophony than harmony and trains voters to listen selectively to the song they like. The most popular song wins.

We’re taught to listen to the victorious songs of the past two hundred years. Freedom from tyranny has a better ring than colonial obedience. Ruling from one coast to another is a much sweeter song than sharing land with another poorly administered empire. All men being equal and free is necessarily good — even though the argument for the Civil War at the time was preserving the Union and not abiding splitters to form their own country. Government acting to put people back to work and restart the economy is a resurgent theme. Taking this interpretation too far results in Whig history that glosses over all conflict, but the present-day political consequences of such a mindset are probably more important than the historiographical consequences.

There are a number of meta-narratives that dominate political coverage, but today every politician, journalist, cab driver and hairdresser has their own version of each issue. Even the truthiest narrative of an individual story matters insofar as it is believed, and facts are secondary.

This needn’t be a huge cause for despair, but a clue for how to reframe political discourse. Republicans are generally better at selling their message than Democrats — who wants socialism?! — but not on every issue. The LGBT community has successfully framed their struggle as one of civil rights, and their equal rights to marriage are only a matter of time.

I'm confident in AP or Reuters, or any source that subscribes to them, to report basic facts. But any interpretation of said facts, whether substantiated or distorted, is just another song. It’s easier to focus on just a few voices than the overall din, and anyone with musical training will rightly wince at the tone-deaf singers.

So yes, silencing the tone-deaf and choosing one conductor would produce harmony. The United Kingdom is somehow all on board with the government-funded BBC, even if they can’t agree on a newspaper of record. But America is much bigger and much less agreeable. One conductor leading a four-part harmony would rob us of dissonance and probably most of the audience — which is thin to begin with. 

It’s easy to throw up our hands and ask with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Flashing forward two thousand years, a dated, leaked version of We Are Legion, explains Anonymous’s ethos by paraphrasing Philip K. Dick’s definition of truth: When you ignore it, it refuses to go away. Despite the sound and the fury of this noisy concert, I do believe there is a score to all of this. I am also certain we’ll never see it.