Earlier this week, I heard Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania say he takes fact checkers with a grain of salt. He listens to the American people, and they feel a different way. In other words, the professionals who sift through and make sense of research and data take a back seat to how we feel.
It was a succinct breakdown of one of our more tragic — and seemingly growing — collective political tendencies. To many, facts don’t matter; feelings do. You hear it in statements such as Marino’s; you see it in post-debate round tables with undecided voters who feel underserved by examinations of policy. You recognize it in Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Nuanced conversations about the Second Amendment are shut down because of the feeling that the right to own a gun is under attack. Unemployment has dropped by half since the height of the economic crisis, but things feel stagnant for many. The complicated realities of deeply flawed drug laws, economics and immigration policy don’t matter. White people feel under attack, so Trump focuses on our porous border.
In Trump, we recognize echoes of Gov. Paul LePage. Earlier this year, the governor successfully dodged engagement in an actual policy conversation by suggesting that black and brown out-of-staters are largely responsible for Maine’s drug problem. Throughout the weeks-long spectacle that followed, Mainers heard a number of things from the governor, from political parties and from the press, but nobody came out with a clear understanding of how it is that drugs get into the state.
This, of course, works to LePage’s advantage because he wins any match that relies on stirring up white, working-class anxiety and loses any honest policy discussion. Actual conversations about addiction touch on regulations, the social safety net, treatment resources and so much more — all topics that LePage refuses to engage with any degree of seriousness.
Welfare is another topic LePage has refused to broach with anything resembling seriousness.
Earlier this week, the governor suggested Maine media helped to cover up a case of welfare fraud at a halal market in Portland named in a federal affidavit. Of course, a number of factors play into which stories earn coverage and which stories outlets might wait to cover as they develop.
But as feelings go, “the media is rigged” and “brown people from away are trying to take our stuff” are enough to get LePage out of a deeper conversation about far bigger perpetrators of mismanagement of welfare funds. In fact, LePage suggested that, if he didn’t know any better, he’d say the media were complicit in the fraud.
Indeed — facts again — the state auditor this week found that the LePage administration has misspent $13.4 million, many times the amount of any alleged fraud at the market. That’s a story this paper has investigated closely with little to no response, outrage or indication of accountability from the administration. But sure, the media is complicit in covering up welfare fraud.
And now, with as graceful a pivot as he is capable of, LePage is echoing Trump’s totally nonsensical suggestion that the election will probably be rigged. Because feelings play better than accountability.
The preference toward pandering to feeling over facts and analysis is something I hadn’t fully acknowledged or understood until the 2008 election.
In late October of that year, I remember asking a family member, “[Barack] Obama has the backing of numerous Nobel laureates, particularly in the economics and sciences. [John] McCain has none. Is this something that sways you one way or another?”
“That’s just how they feel, though. I feel another way.”
It was around the same time that this tendency was exploited by people even more nefarious than lazy and unaccountable politicians.
When it comes to casting a ballot, supporting a candidate, and backing a movement, overreliance on how we feel over our willingness to consider and examine policy, approach and facts — even at the most basic level — is dangerous. It is putting malicious, manipulative people in charge of creating policies that affect our lives. It is propelling racist movements. It is holding back progress. It is literally killing our most vulnerable.
People shouldn’t take pride in supporting the “tough talker” who “shoots from the hip” over someone who actually thinks something through. We deserve better than what we have elevated to power. But before we can have better, we need to stand up to our own basic tendencies.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.