It is a paradox that people are awash in information and yet increasingly prone to politics based on people being ill-informed.
With Google there to answer any question, with the ability to communicate instantly with one another, friends and followers and videos documenting events from the great to the mundane, the American public should be harder to bamboozle. And yet the big political battles in the nation and in North Carolina are struggles between reality and illusion.
Exhibit No. 1 is, of course, Donald Trump, a former reality show star turned unreality candidate. The leaders of the Republican Party that is about to nominate him for president openly call him a con man. He flips his positions to suit the hour or the audience. He’s adamant about things he knows little about. He’s vague regarding things he knows well, his taxes and his wealth. He claims he is going to build a thousand-mile wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States even though more Mexican are leaving than coming in. He’s going to cut taxes and balance the budget without cutting Medicare, Social Security or defense spending.
Almost everyone senses there’s something phony about Trump, but his supporters say they like him because he’s real. His fame and his candidacy may explain the riddle of more information and less knowledge. He uses Twitter like the pied piper’s pipe. Millions tune into his quips and complaints and follow blindly along.
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In a broader sense, Fox News is the same conundrum. It runs around the clock, communicating a version of the world that distorts its dangers and raises its viewers’ anger and fears to a level unjustified by the way things really are. It has fed the delusion that President Obama – an intelligent, honest, gracious man who helped lift the nation out of recession and pulled it back from wars – is the worst president in the nation’s history.
That split view now defines the question before Americans as they choose their next president. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, denies Trump’s narrative of a failing nation he will make great again. She said last week, “This election is a choice between two very different visions of America: one that’s angry, afraid and based on the idea that America is fundamentally weak and in decline. The other is hopeful, generous and confident in the knowledge that America is great, just like we always have been.”
The politics of illusion are not limited to the national stage. States suffer from it, too, and none more so than North Carolina. Our state is being hurt by myths substituting as policy.
The tax-cut myth
The most damaging myth is also the most debunked – cutting taxes will improve the economy and the state. The Republican-led legislature is giving up billions of dollars in tax revenue through tax cuts while shortchanging the basic needs of the state’s people, its environment, its schools and its infrastructure. The state economy has improved along with the nation’s, as it would have without tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthy. But the state’s future has been dimmed as one in four children remains in poverty, rural areas lose population and jobs and greatest force for opportunity – education – is neglected and declining.
Beyond the illusions of Laffer curves and trickle-down theories, North Carolina is being undermined by false fears about gay and transgender people. House Bill 2 is an anti-LGBT rights bill being defended as “common sense” protection against sexual predators stalking women’s restrooms.
HB2 is a sweeping law ostensibly rushed through to block a Charlotte ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender they identify with. That provision has been part of laws in numerous states and cities. In some cases, such as in Minneapolis, the ordinances are decades old. None of these state or cities has reported a problem with sexual predators taking advantage of the law. Yet North Carolina’s leaders have been willing to sacrifice the state’s good image and its appeal to businesses, tourists and retirees in order to defend HB2.
Gullibility isn’t new to politics. Nor is fear mongering. But it seems less acceptable now. People should know better, but somehow they know less.
It’s pointless to expect that politicians who profit from a fearful or misinformed public will take steps to disperse false fears or discourage prejudice. But there is hope that leaders will emerge who will cut through this fog of distortion and distraction by using the new tools of communication to tell and spread the truth.