THE NOTE arrived in my inbox during my Saturday morning cake-baking marathon (11 in one day; a personal best) from a man who was outraged by my column reminding people of Gov. Nikki Haley’s disregard for the rule of law. “I never realized you hated our Governor so much,” he wrote. “Maybe she abuses her children. Something tells me you are a Liberal Democrat who detests conservatism.”
I couldn’t resist interrupting my culinary adventures long enough to respond, because it was shooting fish in a barrel. “The idea that I’m a liberal Democrat certainly could explain the fact that I wrote something criticizing the many instances in which the governor has violated the law and the state constitution,” I wrote. “But then it wouldn’t explain why I (on behalf of our editorial board, but at my recommendation) endorsed Lindsey Graham. And Tim Scott. And Henry McMaster. And Alan Wilson. And Molly Spearman. Why, in short, every statewide candidate I endorsed this year was a Republican — except in the governor's race. The same was the case, by the way, four years ago.”
This reader didn’t want to deal with such inconvenient truths, but he couldn’t let my response go unanswered, so when he fired back Saturday night, he changed the subject: “I do not appreciate” Sen. Vincent Sheheen “calling my Governor a whore.”
And there in one person I had the twin pathologies that had poisoned my inbox all week — and that, more significantly, are poisoning our politics: the refusal to consider clearly demonstrable, documented facts if they undermine our preconceived notions, and the refusal to think logically if doing so might force us to reexamine those preconceived notions.
These pathologies of the American psyche happened to manifest themselves on this occasion in the governor’s supporters, but they are not unique to her, or to this election, or to Republicans. They are bipartisan, tied to candidates who encourage them and candidates who do not, and they are rooted in tribalism, in the practice of picking a team and then searching for, or even making up, if necessary, reasons to justify our decisions.
It’s been a long time, if there ever was such a time, since most people picked their candidates after studying them and the issues and comparing the pluses and minuses of each candidate. Instead, most people allow party apparatchiks to make their decisions for them: The parties decide that this group of issues will be its platform, even if they don’t fit particularly well together, and people swear allegiance to a party, even though they may agree with only, oh, 60 percent of that party’s positions. Or maybe only 10 percent, if those 10 percent concern the issues about which they are most passionate.
It never occurs to tribe members to vote for some candidates from one tribe and some from the other, based on where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to them, and on their intelligence and experience and integrity and honesty.
What is relatively new is this picking of facts. It’s what FOX and MSNBC and the similarly partisan blogs have done to us: They’ve fed us a diet of the facts we want to hear, by either ignoring the facts that they know their audiences don’t want to hear or else thoroughly spinning those facts before people get a chance to hear the unfiltered truth.
Since we consume a constant diet of only those facts that bolster our preconceived notions, we come to believe that there can’t possibly be any facts that don’t bolster our preconceived notions. So when we accidentally hear information that we don’t like, we dismiss it as fabrication.
Or at least that’s the conclusion I reach when I’m feeling charitable. In less charitable times, I’m convinced that people who automatically assume that I’m making up anything they don’t want to hear must be projecting their own worst characteristics onto me. Why would they assume that in others unless they do that themselves? This sort of projection, by the way, is something we all tend to do, if we don’t guard against it.
Picking our truths
I don’t mind people who disagree with the opinions that I draw from the facts; that’s healthy. What I mind, what we all should mind, is people who think they have a right to disagree with incontrovertible facts. What I mind is people who don’t care about facts — no matter how troubling those facts may be.
The people who complained when I reminded them about all the times that state and federal judges have had to rein in the governor’s lawlessness replied in one of three ways: the truly frightening “Thank you for reminding me why I love the governor”; “You’re obviously a liberal Democrat” — as if that would change the facts, even if it were true; or “You’re lying,” usually in combination with the “liberal Democrat” bit.
The people who charged that it was “shameful” to endorse a candidate who said such scurrilous things about our governor were no more interested in facts. Most, though not all, quoted Mr. Sheheen as urging his audience to “escort the whore out the door,” which of course he did not say. There was no “the,” or any other article.
That’s a crucial omission, and people who looked at the situation honestly realized that it was not credible to believe that any one who speaks English as a first language would deliberately use such stilted syntax. If Mr. Sheheen had intended to say what he stumbled into, he would have urged voters to escort “ the whore out the door.”
But of course it wasn’t credible to believe that Sen. Sheheen would deliberately refer to the governor that way — just as it would not be credible, under similar circumstances, to believe that Gov. Haley said something similarly offensive about Sen. Sheheen. These are not crass people who delight in saying unacceptable things. They are not Thomas Ravenel, or Dick Harpootlian, or Jake Knotts, or Robert Ford.
On an even more basic level, it was not credible because Mr. Sheheen isn’t stupid, and you would have to be stupid to deliberately say such a thing in front of a TV camera.
I assumed when I wrote this that Gov. Haley would be re-elected on Tuesday. Not because of Mr. Sheheen’s garbled speech — which no one could possibly have believed was deliberate unless they were already members of Ms. Haley’s tribe — but because she has held a commanding lead all year. But even if she had lost, this tribalism still would be something we need to worry about, because the problem is much larger than Nikki Haley or Vincent Sheheen. And if we don’t find an antidote to the poison, it is going to consume the body politic.