Can America find its way back to truth and consensus?

The Examiner

J. Martin Kerr, Independence

To the editor:

In the early 1990s I heard a new voice on local talk radio. He was ill informed, mocking, sarcastic, cruel and at times racist. He was viciously ad hominem rather than logically critical. When he referred to Chelsea Clinton as a “dog face,” I turned off and thought Rush Limbaugh was destined for the dustbin of radio history.

Little I knew about the trajectory of far-right outrage and disinformation in America, and its minions soon to come with right-wing hate radio, Fox News and a tsunami of social media outlets purveying lies and conspiracies as patriotic creed.

Today we are awash in these conspiracies, half-truths and profound untruths. QAnon, COVID as hoax, Bill Gates’ vaccine implants, huge tax breaks for billionaires help the poor, face masks as liberal tyranny, certified elections (by all 50 states) are rigged, global warming as hoax and most recently renewable energy as the cause of blackouts. We have witnessed a cult of personality eclipsing the democratic process.

For four decades, the right-wing propaganda machine, which would make Joseph Goebbels blush, has preached one consistent message: Liberalism/Democrats are an existential threat to all that is good and decent in America, something to be destroyed, not just electorally defeated. Ideas and policy are irrelevant. Thus, the demonization of the left has been a fait accompli. As we are told by our former “great leader,” any voice in opposition, such as a free press, is fake and the “enemy of the people.”

Lincoln cautioned us that a nation divided cannot stand. Neither can a nation half-delusional and misinformed, and the other half informed or at least intent on seeking truth. Of course we all are entitled to our opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts or “alternative facts.”

I fear for our great republic and its frailty as a self-governing system. Are the institutions of civil and public society, the press, courts, separate branches of government, public schools, religion, and our history for 240 years, sufficient to withstand this antidemocratic assault? History tells us that only we – “We the People” – can preserve and protect our great experiment in self-government. Our elected officials and leaders are only as good as we make them be.

George Orwell told us 70 years ago that for democracy to work there need be a “consensus reality … for the necessary minimum of agreement to be reached.” A common denominator of truth based on facts and reality recognized by society as a whole or at least a dominant majority of that society is an absolute for society to arbitrate events and to govern themselves as a democracy. That is why one of the first victims of authoritarian regimes is the truth.

Will we meet this challenge to restore us to a workable, honest, cooperative and respectful people, willing to strive for the truth in our lives, seek the general welfare and participate in democracy? All great civilizations, including a few republics, have had their day. Have we had ours?