Checking facts is the wrong way to understand political persuasion
With just over two months until the election, we can expect a steep increase in campaign messages — especially ads, mailers, events and speeches. With the rise in messages, we can also expect a complementary rise in fact-checking. Already a considerable amount of coverage — both in traditional news media and on social media — has focused on ferreting out campaigns’ political mistruths.
Although fact-checking is helpful for understanding what is true and what is false, as a professor of political rhetoric, it’s also the wrong way to evaluate campaign messages.
Traditionally, political communication in the final months of a campaign serves two purposes. First, it is intended to spark name-recognition so voters who have not been paying close attention to politics feel like they have some connection to the candidates. Second, it is designed to persuade potential voters, including and especially non-committed voters, that a party or candidate has the best vision for the country.
These typical purposes are designed for a world in which there is significant agreement across the parties about shared goals and values, but significant disagreement about the best ways to achieve or advance those shared commitments. In such ideal circumstances, there are lots of undecided voters that each party tries to appeal to. When there are lots of undecided voters, it can be vital to show that one speaker or another is lying because that can help voters make smart decisions.
But we don’t live in that world. Instead, we live in a world of “negative partisanship.” Used by political scientist Rachel Bitecofer to predict the 2018 midterm elections, negative partisanship is the theory that maintains most voters are not motivated by attraction to one party’s platform, but by dislike of, or even revulsion at, the other party’s platform. It’s a “vote against” more than a “vote for.”
If we back away from the wisdom that campaign communication will sway undecided voters and instead think in terms of negative partisanship, then political rhetoric only needs to energize and mobilize a party’s committed voters.
In the world we actually live in, we have to see “facts” in a different light than we’re used to. Facts are only valuable inasmuch as they energize a party’s committed voters.
This view of facts is a stumbling block for news organizations. In American democracy, a guiding assumption is that facts matter. Ideally, all voters listen carefully to the facts, evaluate them rationally and vote according to what’s best for the community. Most major news organizations work from this guiding assumption.
The problem, however, is that fact-based democracy has only ever been an ideal. And, it’s got a significant pitfall, which is that feelings and passions are all but out of bounds. They’re treated as illegitimate, especially by major news organizations. But, of course, people have feelings and passions that inform their decisions.
This disconnect is crucial for understanding why fact-checking isn’t useful for evaluating political rhetoric.
In a negatively partisan political culture, committed voters need to be energized and mobilized. The best way to do this, as students of rhetoric have known for more than 2,000 years, is to move the passions.
In this model, facts are not worthless, but they’re also not the point. Providing a reason to dislike, or better yet be revolted by, the other party is the main point. Anything that accomplishes this goal is on the table. This is as true for the Democrats as it is for Republicans.
Fact-checking political rhetoric, then, is like using a hammer to screw in a lightbulb. It’s not only the wrong tool for the job. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the job at hand.
To be sure, facts are still incredibly important in political journalism, and they can move people to make better decisions. In a moment of negative partisanship, however, fact-checking can distract us from seeing what’s actually happening — the moving of passions.
If news organizations really want to understand what’s happening in campaign communications and help their consumers understand it, too, they’d do well to back off fact-checking. Instead, they should learn to focus on what feelings and passions are being stimulated and what values and beliefs that can help potential voters understand.
These same principles of persuasion apply to political communications even when we’re not in an election. Even after the election is over, news organizations would do well to learn the lessons of persuasion and apply them.
Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.