Alternative facts and the coming constitutional crisis

(CNS photo/Michael Heiman pool via Reuters)

Casual observers of our friends across the pond like to say that the British don’t have a constitution. That’s not quite right. They do have one, but unlike their American cousins, theirs isn’t spelled out in a single document. Instead, the British constitution is an amalgam of domestic and international law, precedent and tradition, the product of 1,000 years of history.

While the United States does have a single document called “The Constitution,” with an uppercase T and C, the American system also presumes nonconstitutional values and customs that are just as vital, if not more vital to the health of our democracy. The British philosopher Edmund Burke, who was widely read by our well-read founders, tells us why: “Custom is to be regarded with great deference, especially if it be a universal custom,” he wrote, “for there is some general principle operating to produce customs that is a more sure guide than our theories.”

The American founders believed that the principles that should govern a nation are rooted in customs that are themselves rooted in objective realities. As John Courtney Murray, S.J. once observed, the founding declaration, “We hold these truths,” necessarily implies that objective truths exist and that such truths embody “a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe” and binds us “in a common obedience.”

Yet how many Americans still believe that? The more common view seems to be that truth is more like something I create rather than something that we inherit or discover. Has this relativism, long operative in other realms of American life, now entered our politics in a dramatic, new way? Is the new post-factual politics simply one part of a larger cultural shift, one we made long ago? It is a relatively short walk from “there are no objective truths” to “there are no objective facts.” Have we taken those steps? If so, then the free press that our constitution presumes and requires is seriously threatened.

The founders knew, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, that “a despotic government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of news writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth…put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers.” Jefferson believed that the pursuit of truth, especially those empirical facts that are the first instance of truth and the foundation of good journalism, is the surest guard against tyranny, so much so that he once said that if he had to choose between newspapers without a government, or a government without newspapers, he preferred the former.

Yet many Americans now find such sentiments quaint or naïve. In our contemporary politics, facts are not stubborn but elastic things: You have your facts, I have my “alternative facts,” statements not subject to painstaking empirical verification, but simple ideological confirmation. That is itself troubling. Ideologies are little more than questions that answer themselves. The bigger worry, however, is that this world of “alternative facts” seriously undermines the ability of the press to do its constitutional job. When that happens, we’re one step closer to a government without newspapers.

Where does this end? Some think, as David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times, that “we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age.” But, he adds, “that gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.”

Mr. Brooks is right. We more likely face destabilizing, constitutional confusion, than brute authoritarianism. But I suspect that’s not simply the result of the last election. The seeds of the post-factual crisis were planted long ago, amid a greater confusion about the truths we hold, a situation that politicians skillfully manipulated but we the people created.

J Cosgrove
2 months ago

The bigger worry, however, is that this world of “alternative facts” seriously undermines the ability of the press to do its constitutional job. When that happens, we’re one step closer to a government without newspapers.

The main stream press in the United States are the originators of so much fake news or alternative facts that few are believing anything they are saying anymore. Has the main stream press made themselves obsolete by their pettiness?

The press has become obsessed with trying to prove Trump wrong on silly things that they are becoming self parodies of petulance. They publish a false comparison of the crowds at the inauguration and get challenged and this becomes the focus of the press for a couple days trying to prove Trump wrong. Not the fast changing events happening within the country but how many people witnessed the inauguration. For a dramatic gigapixel photo of the inauguration see

http://cnn.it/2jF2sLa

It shows the press were the ones playing fast and loose with the facts. On top of that the streaming of the inauguration was the largest ever streaming event on the internet.

Then there is voter fraud. The press ended up doing Trump's bidding by trying to prove him wrong. He baited them into a new fixation by providing an extraordinary high estimate of voter fraud. Again they focused on this instead of the important events of the day. The result is that Trump will have the Justice Department do an analysis on voter fraud. Probably leading to new voter ID laws by the next election.

Trump is playing the press for fools which they so rightfully deserve.

Charles Erlinger
1 month 4 weeks ago

The furious controversy about facts, truth, error, and lying is, in my opinion, starting to be a generally widespread cause of great anxiety, not to mention irritation and even anger. Generally speaking, the current controversy seems to be limited to what is humanly observable, rather than the truths that are acknowledged by means of metaphysical reasoning and the theology of scripture and tradition.

But even in the realm of what is humanly observable there is plenty of material for controversy. For example, take the recent controversy over crowd sizes at the presidential inauguration. What has been said about them on both sides of the controversy was at first thought by us ordinary citizens (tv watchers, journal readers, social media consumers) to refer to comparative panoramic photographs taken from some elevated camera location and some particular perspective, both of which were, if not identical, at least close enough to offer some comparability. So both photographs seemed to be acceptable bases from which to draw a conclusion. The thing, then, that at first seemed to stir controversy was not facts as observed phenomena, as such, but conclusions. This was the premise on which the objection by the Whitehouse press secretary seemed to be based.

Then things got more interesting when the president, a day or two after the event, told a television interviewer that, of course when you count all of the viewers using TV, Facebook, Twitter and other internet tools for viewing video, to view his inauguration, tools that either did not exist or were in use during any previous inauguration by only a fraction of the audience that used those tools during his inauguration, then he had more viewers than any previous inauguration. In other words, just like in all of those arguments that we older adults used to get into, unadvisedly, with our junior high schoolers, the President pulled the old "premise switcheroo" game. And I'll bet that many of us felt just as foolish falling for the President's play as we used to when falling for our kids' trick play. The lesson here is that this is not mature lying, but kid stuff. It is the mature lying that we should be wary of (although we certainly should be mortally chagrined about the maturity level of the person doing the kid stuff).

Lisa Weber
1 month 4 weeks ago

We are in the midst of an unprecedented situation with Donald Trump. He is blatantly and defiantly corrupt, a pathological liar, and apparently mentally ill. Treason is a likely part of why he was elected at all. He is so obviously unfit that he should never have been allowed to take office.

The situation is confused right now, but the confusion will continue only until the opposition becomes more organized. What I have found astonishing about the transition and Trump's first week in office is the willingness of Republicans to go along with him and the timidity of the Democrats in speaking out against him. The Republicans are giving the impression that the corruption, craziness and likely treason are just business as usual in our national capital. When the backlash against Trump gets established, the Republicans' willingness to go along with him will be their downfall. The Republican Party gave rise to Trump when they failed to shut him down about the birther nonsense. Their options now are to put him out of office or let him fester, and it will not end happily either way.

maryanne kane
1 month 4 weeks ago

These crises cannot be about one man, convenient though that might be. Current global instability runs far deeper than that. There are constant calls to emotional outcry -- how "outrageous" can "outrageous" be. There is a predilection for one word adjudications, i.e., "unjust, immoral," etc., as reported here. All this seems to be little more than distraction writ large, convenient though that might be.

Every one seems to know who the bad guy is, and, no surprise, it isn't himself or herself. There is no pause to consider, only a rush to (self-serving) pronouncements.

Each day dawns anew with another uproar stoked, yet none seem to ask whether, perchance, they are being manipulated, and, if perchance so, by whom, and, if so, to what end? It is so much easier (and all in the hive will applaud) to decide it is the work of X, wrought by Y, to attain Z (no doubt of cataclysmic proportions).

The sole ray of hope perceived this week is the sudden main stream media affinity for facts, which had fallen into disfavor in the celebration of post-modernist constructivism, which embraces a lot of syllables to say that the individual makes up his or her own reality. (What a great relief from any obligation to others!) This new affection for objective reality can be but a stone's throw from reflection, perhaps not a moment too soon.

Today arrived the words of a writer (David French) that this commenter does not hold dear. Yet the words hit home in ways that the daily deluge of foaming at the mouth has not, and it is my deepest wish that they had not:

"This is post-Christian politics to its core. This is the politics one gets when this world is our only home, and no one is in charge but us. There is no sense of proportion. A conventional but politically talented progressive is the Lightworker. A populist who lacks the power or constituency to do even a fraction of what his worst critics fear is now some sort of Darkworker — a malevolent force touching off an existential crisis across the land. "

Something to consider, should anyone grow tired of posters and chanting, of marching and singing, or of clenched, raised fists and angry voices.

Emmett Burke
1 month 4 weeks ago

Here is a simple analogy from the real world.
In bee colonies, foraging bees return to the hive and communicate the location of profitable foraging sites through the waggle dance. If those are inaccurate, the bee colony will not be efficient in acquiring nectar and may die due to its inability to gather sufficient stores to make it through the winter. In our society if we cannot agree on facts we too will become very inefficient and may not be able to function as a society. Even if one acquiesces, the society will not be functioning cooperatively but rather as a dictatorship. The wonders of a bee colony is that there is individual cooperation based on trusted communication. There are a variety of things communicated, e.g., foraging sites distinguished by quality, the presence of the queen, and threats to the community. Each bee does the right thing because she trusts what is being communicated.

Lisa Weber
1 month 4 weeks ago

I like your analogy. No one can make good decisions with misleading information. A significant part of this political mess we have now is a campaign of misinformation that has been going on for thirty years that I know of.

Daniel Shazzar
1 month 4 weeks ago

I had a good laugh at the irony of depicting Jefferson as someone reputable as a defender of truth. Here is a man known to have not trusted even the very words written in Scripture - so much so he was known to cut out the passages that were offensive or questionable to him leaving him his own version to trust. Consider this - if Twitter was available in his day, Jefferson would likely tweet that the reports of the Empty Tomb were just a fabricated story!

Kerry Wilson
1 month 3 weeks ago

I think this line about "alternative facts" is not going away anytime soon. Kelly Ann Conway seems to be very good at her job, but the day she said this was not her best day on the job. I am not a Trump supporter, by the way, but I live with one, and I know many others. I have some understanding about why they feel the way they do.

I think what Ms. Conway was saying is that reporters cherry pick the facts they want to emphasize and ignore other facts. Ms. Conway probably wanted to say something like this: why are you focusing on the negative things? Who can measure enthusiasm? We had enthusiasm from our supporters at the inauguration. It was a great success. Why didn't you report on that?

Let's take a look at the new America magazine. The most recent issue has articles about tolerating Muslims (2), gun control, the dangers of nationalism, other ways of being in community with people (seemed to be about LGTBQ Catholics, but was not clear), a positive article about the TV show "The Young Pope," and an article from a female Episcopalian priest about loving her husband's child from an extramarital affair (basically saying it is all working out splendidly).

All of your facts may be facts. You may have interesting, well-written articles. Your writers may be "experts." However, when you choose to feature one article or story over others, you are telling a larger story, and your readers are smart: they know it. They know "where you are coming from." In this case, your magazine seems to be decidedly left of center. I would say the overhaul seems to make it more so, but perhaps it is too soon to say. I know you are headquartered out of New York City. It shows.

I believe my husband, who does not read your magazine, would find several of these articles objectionable, should he ever pick it up.

Here is an example: this edition contains a small blurb about the fact that housing costs are going up in California and the birthrate is falling. This article suggests that the two things are connected. My husband (a political conservative) would disagree. It may be true that birthrates are dropping, but he would say it is because our culture DOES NOT VALUE TRADITIONAL FAMILIES! I put that in all caps because conservatives really do feel that it has become radical in the Western world to live in a traditional family, to advocate for traditional families as the best place to raise children, to honor ones marital vows, to raise your children in the faith, to be open to having as many children as God gives, etc.

If there were cards, I would be a card carrying Democrat and a Catholic, but even I get it about "alternative facts." Politicians are not the only ones "spinning" the facts. There are a gazillion more ways to get information and a gazillion more voices to listen to in today's world than there used to be. We used to take news at face value. We don't anymore, and for good reason! Could it be that we are better consumers of the news because of this? Maybe...

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 3 weeks ago

The Inauguration attendance was a match that lit this firestorm of so called "alternative facts" and a stream of vitriol labled: "who are you going to believe....me or your lying eyes?"

The New York Times and CNN began this bonfire by publishing 2 Inauguration Day pictures of the National Mall side by side...one of the Obama 2009 Inauguration and the other of the 2017 Trump Inauguration with the underlying caption stating they were both "taken 45 minutes before the Presidential Speechs".
President Trump responded that the photo of his Inauguration is not what he saw.
The New York Times/ CNN photos were accurate
President Trump was accurate

Well, how could both "facts" be true"?......
Actually the answer is quite simple and the explanation exposes how this new world of "Alternate Facts" arises:

The answer is rooted in what we know as "cherry picking" the facts.
Why did the New York Times/CNN choose a time 45 minutes before the speeches?
Why did the New York Times/CNN choose the Obama 2009 Inauguration and not the Obama 2013 Inauguration?
Why did Trump say that those comparative pictures are not what he saw when he stood there and looked out.

Well if you look at CNN's Gigapixel video of the Trump 2017 Inauguration and use the pan/expand function to zoom right down the National Mall you will see Trump at the podium and the crowds extending fairly densely covering the white matting all the way to the Washington Monument. Zoom in tight down the Mall. This video shows what happened and more importantly what Trump saw: There was relatively dense coverage of people right up to the Washington Monument mound

On the other hand New York Times/CNN chose to publish pictures at a time 45 minutes before the Inaugural Speech time for their comparison (and chose the Obama 2009 Inauguration) because it allowed them to maximize their narrative of a comparative difference in attendance .......in short.they "cherry picked" the pictures to support their preferred narrative and cast maximum doubt on Trump's election approval.
In my opinion, The Times/CNN actions cast more doubt on their rectitude than Trump's approval.

Surely The Times /CNN had full access to the full CNN GigaPixel video of the Trump Inauguration. Their choice of what pictures to publish and to compare was intentionally made!
No pictures were made available for the site at 45 minutes before the Obama Inauguration Speech in 2013, but I suspect it wasn't nearly as dramatic a contrast as the 2009 Obama Inauguration permitted.
So while Trump spoke of what he saw ( Using exaggerating terms), the The Times/CNN selected..."cherry picked"...the absolute greatest negative contrast it could dig up.
Both Trump and The Times/CNN were factually accurate but The Times/CNN intentionally used its facts to mislead.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF ALTERNATIVE FACTS? They are not really alternative, but you can disparage the other side's accurate statements with the pejorative "alternative facts".
In this case, the correct argument is about whether the cited "facts" are misleading!

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

The attendance at Trump's inaugural compared to Obama's in 2009 was amazing because Trump's main support came from hundreds if not a thousand miles away while Obama had strong support from the Washington metro area where the inauguration takes place. Also there were reports of violence at the inauguration which would restrict people and they actually shut down an interstate coming into Washington. This threat of violence apparently caused many of the spectators not to be let in the Mall until the last minute.

Then there was the remote viewing which probably exceeded Obama's. The TV ratings were less for Trump than Obama but the live streaming exceeded every preceding event in history.

My problem is not with Chuck Todd who made a fool of himself trying to prove Kellyanne Conway wrong but the fools who believed Chuck Todd.

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