Since Donald Trump’s upset election, I’ve had a unique and odd experience, one peculiar to D.C. I’ve participated in a number of events — conferences, dinners, panels — that were planned before the election and predicated on a different outcome. To say the mood is somber at these events is an understatement.
What has been particularly discordant is to hear policy types, myself included, discuss what we need to do going forward. These include ideas to prolong the economic recovery and help ensure that it reaches more people. Also, there’s a recession out there somewhere, and we’re not ready for it, so good ideas abound regarding preparations that Congress should undertake now while the sun’s still shining. Other ideas include some of the best parts of Hillary Clinton’s agenda, including ways to help people balance work and family, pay for college, improve the Affordable Care Act, and to push back on economic discrimination by race and gender.
When I hear myself and my colleagues make these arguments, I feel as if we’re leading a parade but have neglected to turn around and see the thin crowd that’s following us.
That is, of course, an exaggeration. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 1 percent and counting. But those of us in the facts business must at least consider how little our work seemed to penetrate in the months leading up to the election.
Already, many of us progressives have dusted ourselves off and gone right back to work, promulgating more facts and policy arguments. That’s necessary and increasingly important, as the Trump team is generating policies that sound good but are wasteful and inefficient. We’re used to playing such defense, and we’re good at it.
But if that’s all we do, we’ll be failing the people whom we’re here to help. The problem isn’t that the facts aren’t out there; it’s that they don’t seem to be gaining much traction. Moreover, there is no way an $18.7 trillion economy can be successfully managed if facts are on the run. We either solve this problem or watch our country deteriorate.
So how do we find and successfully navigate the road back to Factville?
We can gain an important hint by looking at what hasn’t worked. Many in the real media (as opposed to the “alt-right”) responded, often admirably, with fact checking, even in real time, as during the presidential debates. But listen to what Major Garrett, from CBS news, said about this on the Diane Rehm radio show the other day, incisively summarizing his experiences on the campaign trail:
“Any fact-checking I did … was prima facie evidence that I was biased and that I was wrong. Fact checking Trump was proof not that he was wrong but that he was right and that anyone who would raise a question about the underlying relationship about what he said and the facts was biased and therefore legitimately disregarded … It wasn’t as if there was a conversation about this; it wasn’t as if facts were litigated back and forth. The very raising of a question about the factual basis of a Trump assertion was proof that you were wrong and biased and that was the atmosphere that I found myself existing in as a reporter and to call it challenging would be an understatement.”
The institution of the establishment media is, in other words, not trusted by partisans who can point and click to countless other places to find “facts” that meet their priors. It’s a brilliant opposition strategy: when the act of fact-checking itself signals to partisans that you’re biased, that’s checkmate against evidence.
Next, ask yourself who benefits from the absence of evidence-based analysis? Examples are useful here. I can show, using the work of the think-tankers I’ve mentioned thus far that the social insurance programs of Medicare and Social Security are highly efficient and effective in boosting the welfare of retirees, and that there are no such private systems that would be nearly as effective. I can show the same societal-wide net benefits for the Affordable Care Act and the anti-poverty safety net. Same for countercyclical policy to offset recessions. Same for public education, from quality preschool to affordable college.
Every one of these programs is a “public good” and thus adds to the role of the government and requires ample funding provided through tax revenue. So, if you’re someone who wants to keep more of your pretax income, you must discredit such programs and the government that provides them.
I see this play unfolding as we speak: One, discredit the facts so nobody knows what works and what doesn’t. Two, pass a massive tax cut that delivers the goods to the top few percent. Three, argue, based on #1 above, that the tax cuts will generate enough growth to pay for themselves. Four, when they fail to do so and the debt starts going through the roof, throw up your hands and say you’ve got to cut the “entitlements.”
I don’t profess to know how to break this chain, but I do know this: Bringing the best ideas to fruition, where “best” means those that promote the greatest social welfare, does not depend solely on logic, numbers and the best arguments.
First, both the media and allegedly centrist policy organizations need to retire the idea that pairing fact-based analysis with unfounded bias is balanced reporting. Why should there be a debate on whether trickle-down tax cuts can double the growth rate and pay for themselves? And, yet, I’m called upon to have that debate weekly. If they can get you arguing over the wrong questions, they’ve already won.
At the very least, the media should mitigate the damage by making debates more representative of the state of knowledge on an issue — meaning, as John Oliver has pointed out, that climate change debates should generally feature 97 scientists explaining that it’s real and a problem for every three people who deny that reality.
Second, we in the think tank world need to reach beyond the choir both in our policy and our communications. I can name many think tanks that work with great energy and notable successes on the problem of poverty. I cannot say the same for the problem of helping displaced manufacturing workers.
Third, we must call it like we see it with much more intensity. I wonder if one reason the progressive base wasn’t out in force was in part because we failed to explain the stakes in clear, powerful language, naming names and directly confronting falsehoods and racism.
Fourth, and relatedly, we need to be more proactive in working with and supporting advocates and social movements. The Fight For $15, the Fed Up Campaign and Black Lives Matter are examples in recent years of people coming together to pressure politicians to act. They’ve been successful because they haven’t stopped at the facts; instead, they take the facts and integrate them with people-power and a compelling moral message.
I’m sure there are more and better ideas to reestablish facts and evidence-based policy to their necessary perch. Like I said, I’m no expert in this space: When my colleagues and I were in graduate school, we studied facts, not how to reinject them into the debate. But unless we do so and couple them with progressive political movements, I fear we may make no progress.