Any freethinking person should know not to take a politician’s words at face value. Time and time again, politicians promise us things that never get done, make unsubstantiated claims to delegitimize their opponents, and distort facts to the point where the truth is so muddied that it’s impossible to discern reality from bullshit. This has been going on since the political sphere was created, since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and probably far before that. However, in the current political climate of the United States, and especially in the 2020 election, the prevalence of these dishonest tactics seemed to nearly completely eclipse all truth, leaving Americans on either side of the aisle to live in separate and conflicting realities.
Regardless of your political leanings, you have to admit that the 2020 election felt like a vacuum of objective truth. Over and over, it seemed like the discourse on almost any issue you can think of was more focused on who was telling the truth about the magnitude of the problem than how any of the candidates were planning to solve the problem. In this way, the election came down to who was the most truthful liar and not who was the candidate with the best plan for forwarding the interests of our country.
If you think that this was done by accident, it wasn’t. Delegitimizing one’s opponent has always been a political strategy employed by politicians lacking integrity. However, as it seems integrity has been all but wiped from the political landscape of the United States, this tactic is being employed with increasing frequency. This article will attempt to identify the ways that politicians attempt to delegitimize their opponents and discuss the effects of those strategies on public perception.
Muddying the Truth
If you’ve ever read Catcher in the Rye or any other novel with an unreliable narrator, you pretty much already understand the goal behind delegitimizing one’s political opponent. While this practice has become a bit more obtuse in recent times, with examples like Donald Trump referring to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” the purpose is not necessarily to suggest the falsehood of your opponent’s individual claims but to paint them as a generally untrustworthy source, thus creating a seed of doubt for any assertion they might try to make.
In the debates throughout the 2020 election, the discussion often went completely off topic as the debaters would try to draw attention to any of their opponent’s past discretions rather than to actually attend to the issue at hand. In doing so, these politicians create an atmosphere of distrust that can be applied to any of their opponent’s future claims.
This tactic is employed on both sides of the aisle and at every level of politics. Delegitimizing one’s opponent is one of the lowest forms of political discourse but, unfortunately, has proven so effective that it is extremely commonly employed. You’ll see it in smearing television commercials paid for by local politicians, and you’ll see it on the debate stage being used by presidential candidates.
Our Part as Citizens
The blame for this muddying of the truth does not only lie with the politicians, however. We as citizens have allowed our politicians to continue to distort reality to the point where we don’t know what’s real or not by failing to hold them accountable. For many people, our political leanings have overshadowed the logical faculties of our minds, and we’ve begun to think more emotionally than objectively. By doing so, we’ve allowed ourselves to become convinced of a reality that aligns with our political beliefs rather than one that challenges us and makes us think critically.
Again, politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of white lies, of delegitimizing their opponents, and of making statements that are just flat-out false. But when your favorite politician says something, how willing are you to fact-check them and accept the possibility that what they’re saying might be incorrect or false? Likewise, when the politician who you despise says something, how quick are you to jump to the conclusion that they’re wrong or full of shit? By letting our preferences get in the way of objective reality, we’ve given politicians the opportunity to skew our perceptions by catering to our emotions.
What do we do about all this? Well, before you go into blindly believing whatever your favorite politician says or blindly distrusting what your least favorite politician says, it’s important to do the research yourself. Numbers don’t lie for the most part. And the more research you do, the more the full picture comes into view. Instead of getting your facts from a politician and regurgitating them during political discussions, turn to nonpartisan, science-based sources for your information.
Unfortunately, though, politicians have begun to sew distrust in their bases toward nonpartisan organizations. For instance, a politician might claim that the Center for Disease Control is misreporting data to forward a political agenda. And, in truth, some so-called “nonpartisan” organizations have shown evidence of political leanings. However, the best way to get to the truth is by looking through the numbers for yourself. If you determine with your own logical mind that these numbers can’t be trusted because they’ve been skewed by political bias, that’s fine, but don’t write off the findings of an entire scientific organization because a politician tells you to. To do so is to willingly give up your capacity for free thought.
What We Deserve
At the end of the day, politicians whose entire political strategy does nothing to help our country improve and progress into the future. The only possible result of such nefarious tactics is a world in which truth no longer exists. And how can we move forward and solve problems when we don’t even know which problems really exist? We citizens of the United States, and citizens all over the world, deserve politicians that are transparent and truthful. We deserve politicians who prove that they’re upstanding and intelligent enough to lead our nations to a better place, not politicians who can simply prove that they aren’t quite as awful as the other guy.
Here’s an exercise that we can all practice: if you’re a Republican, watch CNN, if you’re a Democrat, watch Fox News. Try to watch either program in the most unemotional way possible. Rather than shouting at your television and cursing out whoever the nightly host is, try to discern the tactics that they use to distort the truth. Look for the white lies, the emotional appeals, and the “whataboutism” that these media outlets employ. Then switch over to your favorite news outlet and look for the same tactics in an unemotional way. You’ll probably begin to realize that both sides spend a hell of a lot of time delegitimizing their opponents, time that could be spent informing the public about real facts and figures and real issues.
If we’re ever to move past this era of political truth distortion, we as citizens need to take it into our own hands to keep ourselves informed. We need to cut through all the bullshit and distractions and get to the objective truth. Then, when a politician (whether they’re from our party or not) tries to distort that truth, we need to speak up and demand better politicians that base their arguments on facts and solutions rather than distractions and delegitimization.
More than anything, we can’t allow ourselves to become desensitized to bad politics, even though it’s certainly trending that way. We can’t accept a world where we’re electing the lesser of two evils. We can’t allow deception and smoke in mirrors to become the status quo. Here in the United States, we have a democratic power to choose our leaders. And by holding those leaders to a higher standard and using our logical faculties, we can usher in a day when our leaders are truly those who have our best interests in mind.