Presidential Campaign

Truth was lost in the election. Americans must get it back.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

I am an economist, not a philosopher, but I am still in the truth business. That may sound a bit rich coming from someone in a profession that largely missed predicting the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession that followed, but let me explain.

As a professor, I tell my students that when undertaking research, they should find the most applicable bit of economic theory, use that theory to guide them in gathering the best available data, and employ the most sensible techniques to analyze the data.

Although they might not make a new discovery or win a Nobel Prize in doing this, they will move the state of knowledge in economics closer, if even just slightly closer, to the truth. And getting closer to the truth, I tell them, is what economic research is all about.

My devotion to, and belief in, the truth was battered by the presidential election.  

It turns out that polling data and analysis contained very little truth. The news were no better. The mainstream media got many things wrong. And there was no shortage of fake news. Although peddled as the real thing, it really wasn’t even trying to provide truth, only to shape opinion.

But by far the biggest letdown in the truth department was Donald Trump, who proved that telling lie upon lie upon lie need not prevent someone from being elected president.

{mosads}I am not naive. I understand that presidential candidates periodically stray from the truth. Sometimes, it is because they do not understand the practical difficulties that will prevent them from fulfilling their promises. President Obama’s vow to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp falls into this category.

Other times, circumstances change, leading presidents to back down from unrealistic promises. President George H. W Bush was not able to keep his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Recognizing that he couldn’t keep that promise by backing off was a statesmanlike act. The right policy all but guaranteed that he would not be reelected.

We have never had someone quite like President-elect Trump, who spouts so many lies and, when confronted, doubles down and lies even more.

Among Trump’s biggest whoppers were that Obama was not born in the United States, that Obama and Hillary Clinton were co-founders of ISIS, that he could not release his taxes because he was being audited by the IRS, and that he actually won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The list goes on and on.

Many of these lies were reported by the press in the months and weeks leading up to the election. The electorate—at least 48 percent representing majorities in states making up 57 percent of the electoral votes—were either not sufficiently troubled by these lies or were unaware that they were lies, to vote for another candidate.

What should the truth-loving public do going forward?

First, pay attention to sources. It is relatively easy to construct a realistic website that has the look and feel of a real news organization or reputable think tank. Do not be fooled. If someone tells you something about the state of employment in the United States, double check facts at Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website. The U.S. government is the best, most reliable source for factual data about the nation’s economy. Obama didn’t fudge the numbers, and Trump is unlikely to be able to do so.

Second, even relatively trusted new sources have their less trustworthy bits. In print media, the division between truth and opinion is usually clear. You can generally trust what you read in the Wall Street Journal, until you get to the opinion pages. Television networks are less clear about separating fact from fiction. CNN’s hiring of Trump campaign employee Corey Lewandowski—while he was on the Trump payroll and still subject to a non-disclosure agreement—should have set off alarm bells among CNN viewers, not to mention the better journalistic instincts of CNN’s management.

Third, be demanding. I encourage my students to challenge the authors that they read in class, including me. Ask questions, check sources and verify the truth for yourself. Just because something has been shared on Facebook a million times does not mean it is true. We should challenge the assertions of politicians of all stripes just as vigorously.

Finally, we need to care more about the truth. One of the most troubling aspects of the election was that so many people voted for Trump despite being fully aware of his many lies because “he shouldn’t be taken literally.” At the risk of sounding naive again, approaching national elections with the attitude that outright lies don’t matter does not bode well for the future of our democracy.

The best researchers are those who help advance the state of knowledge. Getting closer to the truth, even in small increments, is a worthy goal. Our democracy will be stronger if more voters take the truth more seriously. The more of us in the truth business, the better.

Richard S. Grossman is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University and a professor of economics at Wesleyan University. He is the author of Wrong: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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