Will Democracy Drown In A Sea Of Sophistry?

For the past year and a half I’ve hosted a weekly radio show where I interview guests about a wide range of subjects, giving them a platform to share their stories and beliefs, without the shouting-head bombardment or editorial spin framing that characterizes so much of contemporary talk radio and television. Many of these guests are passionate advocates of one cause or another, which is often the reason I invite them. So far, it’s been a richly rewarding experience. I only wish more of the media landscape were similar.

Every time I read the news or wade into the blogosphere I’m exposed to an even wider parade of advocates, including many preaching doctrines I find silly, wrongheaded, or downright abhorrent. And I’ve started to notice a pattern.

Only the rarest of advocates seem to accord objective facts primacy of place. Instead, they remind me of trial lawyers whose job is to weave a compelling narrative for sequestered juries, excising from the record any purported facts that weaken their arguments, often resorting to appalling acts of sophistry. And the pattern spans the professions — from scientists, who are supposed to know better, to economists, who increasingly don’t seem to know much of anything.

Even worse, our culture of rabid partisanship increasingly encourages consumers to evaluate the veracity of facts and narratives based on the advocates’ tribal affiliations, rather than on any objectively verifiable criteria. I’m no longer sure a majority of my fellow citizens even believe there is such a thing as objective facts, or that anyone has the power to fish them out of the sea of misinformation plastered all over the web by dueling advocates. It seems the more information our abundant communications media shower upon us, and the more experts weigh in any subject, the less we can be sure of what we know.

The (very) occasional advocates who put facts first, including some inconvenient to their cause, don’t see their credibility enhanced. Rather, opposing zealots seize on these “admissions,” to shout, “Gotcha! Two points for our team.” (Though to be fair, does anyone really seek wisdom by watching Al Sharpton and Ann Coulter yell at each other?)

None of this would be a threat to Western Civilization’s long term prospects if we were all free to make up our own minds on the vast majority of issues, with each of us bearing the consequences of our own judgment. But on an exponentially growing number of issues, debates get settled at the ballot box instead of in the marketplace. And unlike the marketplace where exchanges are voluntary, political winners get to forcibly impose their views, and any accordant costs, on all the losers.

Knowing this, more people from more walks of life get into more fights over more issues, while opposing armies of professional loudmouth advocates lead the charge. It’s all music to the ears of donation-hungry politicians and controversy-seeking media.

This leads to absurdities like the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, who surely has more important things to do, dictating a national policy on what level of bee deaths are acceptable in over-wintering beehives. (I challenge you to Google up “bee deaths” to sort out the underlying facts in an acrimonious debate that has set beekeepers against insecticide companies, farmers against environmental zealots, and taxpayers against grocery shoppers.)

There doesn’t seem to be a clear path out of this. Most cultural and political forces are driving us toward more “democracy,” more hyperactive politicians, more nationally enforced policies, more advocates pleading their cases, and more devastating costs whenever the majority chooses badly.