The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election is not a battle between left and right, it’s a war over facts; what we know and how we know it.
In American politics, there are two old chestnuts concerning facts, about the role of truth in our civic life. One is by the late New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.” And the other comes from the country’s second president, John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.”
In the current climate, heading into the depths of a national election, these revered and oft-quoted tropes are suddenly more laugh-out-loud knee slappers than homespun wisdom. With a pandemic raging, the economy in tatters, racial disparity once again sending people spilling into the streets; with two white septuagenarians squaring off for the presidency, the big question is, oddly, “What can we know and how can we know it?”
That sounds like either a snooze-inducing Philosophy 101 introduction or an invitation to a late-night bullshit session. But in the midst of this over-heated election, the threadbare, ugly, and vulgar politics of the United States is kicking up a serious, epistemological crisis that says a lot about where America stands in this year of our Lord, 2020.
Try this on: we get our knowledge, what we think we know, from others. Growing up, we get it from parents, teachers, coaches, religious authorities – those figures we can’t help but accept into our personal tent. We continue on doing the same thing as adults; we “pick” those we trust and assume most of what we know from them, adding the media and our social groups to the above list.
We know about “gravity” not because we’ve done the legwork, the observations, the experiments, but because we trust those who have. Or take squishier cases. Some will say they “know” based on the position of the stars – they’ve let Astrology into their tent; or “know” the moon landing was faked because they’ve let in the darker reaches of the web.
In the dressing up of personal identity, one’s political affiliation has suddenly become the T-shirt to wear; you’re either on the bus or off the bus, and into the chasm between the two has fallen truth, reality, and what we think we know.
In the radical tribalism that has gripped US electoral politics (the Red Team/Blue Teams or, more precisely, the Trump/anti-Trump Teams) there is a lot of calling white black and black white; a lot of confusion between hawks and handsaws. In the dressing up of personal identity, one’s political affiliation has suddenly become the T-shirt to wear; you’re either on the bus or off the bus, and into the chasm between the two has fallen truth, reality, and what we think we know.
The Democrats, or rather the anti-Trumpers, have chosen to let science and scientific expertise into their tent. In Trump World, these experts (The NIH, the CDC, and the WHO) are persona non grata. Science ideally starts from an open-minded questioning, carries out a series of controlled experiments, and comes to provisional conclusions based on the outcomes, i.e., the empirical evidence. To “know” something is to have tested it, observed it, and tested it again. In this tent, facts can be stubborn things; you’re not about to jump off a building thinking that, this time, you’ll fly.
However, it’s not that Trumpers have kicked all experts out of their tent, it’s just that they’ve let in a whole other set. For argument sake, let’s call this expertise “legalistic.” Here, the “facts” don’t really matter. You can make those up if you have to. What counts, what is “known,” is the case you can construct for whatever facts you’ve decided to put out there. The literal truth of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” in a courtroom is not all that important, it’s what case, what argument can be made to convince others of guilt or innocence; the result becomes the reality.
In Trump World, facts aren’t so stubborn. Think of last year’s impeachment trial and this becomes clear. All Trump had to do was “win” in the Senate “trial” and he could claim that not only was that particular case against him a hoax, but indeed all negatives about him were bogus. Many bought it. Meanwhile, over in Fact World, this was clearly not the case. Black is not white.
So, a good way to look at the 2020 Presidential election is not as a battle between left and right, between capitalists and socialists, or even between those quaint terms “Republican” and “Democrat.” It’s a battle for what we know and how we know it; in this case, between how a scientist knows and how a lawyer knows.
And, by the way, the fact that Trump has made it into his seventies and is not in jail means that, so far, the lawyers are winning.