Among the many casualties of the just-ended presidential campaign — the presumptive ascendency of the liberal agenda, the requirement of qualification for high office, civility in political discourse, the credibility of pollsters, and the political career of Hillary Clinton – there has been another casualty, potentially more lasting and momentous: the Enlightenment dogma of a meritocracy of ideas that allows us to share a common, fact-based reality.
At the practical, everyday level, this casualty has taken the form of a thorough humiliation of the old gatekeepers of public information, the print and electronic media outlets that since the dawn of television were the arbiters of nearly universally accepted fact. A large segment of the electorate voted for Donald Trump in part because he openly reviled these sources of what we call news, which had condescended to him for decades, and sought to substitute his own and his supporters’ idiosyncratic tweets and rants for the headlines and op-eds that in another era would have framed the political discourse. That he largely succeeded in this says something about the American electorate, but it also speaks volumes about the fragility of the mainstream media’s hold on public attention and its continued influence on our perception of the world.
We live in a time of increasingly atomized experience, midwifed by the Internet and personal computing devices. We already have the means to encapsulate ourselves in individualized silos of perception and information, and as those technologies become more pervasive and invasive, our individual realities will become less and less like one another, reducing the likelihood of consensus on any of the major issues of the day, be it gun control or abortion rights or climate change or the need to go to war.
This is a very different threat to democracy than the fascist group-think that the Orwells of our past feared, but it is no less real. An anarchy of undifferentiated ideas is no less destructive of democracy than the tyranny of a single idea.
What’s most worrisome is that this subversion of consensus operates not only at the level of political or philosophical opinion, but has now begun to invade what we used to call objective fact. Trump’s victory over mainstream media and traditional politics can be seen anti-elitist, but it’s also anti-rationalist. His election despite his and his enablers’ compulsion to lie and mischaracterize has given lasting license to cranks, conspiracy theorists, and Internet trolls of all stripes who were once consigned to the laughable fringe. Fake news itself becomes news. Hence we are doomed to hear, from voices that once would have been confined to the corner bar, that climate change is a fiction engineered by a cabal of self-serving academics, that the Syrian refugee crisis is a media lie, and that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor. Journalism is dead; long live the meme.
Simply put, the new premise of public discourse spawned by this awful electoral cycle is that anyone can say anything with complete impunity, that anyone’s ideas are just as good as anyone else’s. Liberals have too blandly assumed that the arc of history bends in their favor; the moral superiority of their positions isn’t obvious to their fellow citizens, and can’t be blithely presumed. Urban intellectuals can no longer bask in the warmth of old-fashioned meritocracy, as that sun has been eclipsed.
But nor are ignorance and indecency entitled to an equal say. All ideas are not equal, and if we as a species have any claim to upward progress, it’s because some ideas have proved themselves true or moral, and been embraced and defended, while others have been discredited and discarded, sometimes by force of arms.
Let’s stipulate that neither Democrats – or, more broadly, liberals – nor conservative Republicans can pretend to have a corner on empirical truth, much less to own the moral high ground in the important debates that confront us as a nation. But a third voice has emerged that we’d all better be alert to, and that’s the so-called alt-right voice of Bannon and Cernovich and their ilk, who do claim, openly, wrapping themselves in the First Amendment, that anyone’s ideas, no matter how venal, bigoted, or indifferent to fact, are as good as anyone else’s, and what’s more, that anyone who calls them out is guilty of being “politically correct.”
The First Amendment may be a license to be stupid, but it doesn’t confer legitimacy. All ideas are not equal. Some ideas are plainly wrong and dangerous and bound inexorably for the ash-heap of history, and the most frightening thing about the last year or so is how so many of those ideas and the clever, oblique, and ultimately cowardly expression of them have been normalized, the conservative label hijacked to legitimize them. How we will come to view the next four years depends dramatically on whether we can revive the norms of reason and civility to which, in our lost world of media-dominated consensus, we once held our leaders and ourselves accountable.