Once upon a time, political debate would hinge on the interpretation of facts. Give unemployment is x%, how do you interpret that fact and what should we do about it? Though political debate was still bitter in those days, they seem halcyon compared to the present day when no one seems able to agree on what the facts actually are. The narratives and counter-narratives are not simply about interpretation anymore, but about reality itself. Voices willing to make up facts on the spot are so bold that they do not even hesitate to repeat unreality even if challenged. (Here is one example from the essay linked below: “Trump proclaims at one rally that his tariffs have prompted U.S. Steel to open seven new plants, and after fact-checkers point out the actual number is zero, he ups the number to eight or nine at his next rally.”)

Even the media itself, once the ‘source’ of the facts that grounded political debate in the US, is accused of doing the very same. If in times past there was a hunger to hear the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11), now it seems we hunger just to know what is real and what is not. Of course, the two hungers are related; if we reject the word of the Lord, which is Truth, it is inevitable that our ability to recognize reality will be substantially impaired.

Here is an essay to read in this regard: Click Here.

Our Readers’ Puzzle concerns this breakdown in communication and the future of our polity. If it is now impossible to agree on facts, is democracy rendered impossible? Does it reduce to who has the largest bullhorn, who is usually the one with the most financial resources? How can members of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints navigate this new, groundless polity?

Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board, SquareTwo Journal (2018) "Readers' Puzzle 2018, Communication and Democracy," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 3 (Fall 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleReadersPuzzleFall2018.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 6 Comments

I. Ralph Hancock

Just the Facts?

We rightly deplore the way facts are now treated on both ends of the political spectrum – polarized ends that are now extending, alas, ever more towards the middle. (We must indeed ask whether a consequential “middle” still exists, a sector of opinion where some passably satisfactory difference-splitting is still possible.) But the idea that hope lies in simple fidelity to some “facts” arises from a grave misunderstanding of our predicament. Jonathan Chait, an opinion journalist of the left, published an essay in 2005 that nicely represents this reassuring misunderstanding. Liberals base their policy preferences on the facts, he opined, whereas conservatives trade in “principles” and “dogmas.” Conservatism is thus an “ideology,” whereas liberalism is just, well, rational, in a “practical” or “pragmatic” sort of way. We see the same kind of assumption at work in the notion that our political opponents can be discredited once and for all by some objective “fact-checking.”

How lovely, Mr. Chait, for liberals and their facts. The fact is (if you will excuse the expression), that we only care about the facts in the perspective of some context, some understanding of the larger whole, of purpose and meaning, of matters that ultimately must be clarified by, yes, philosophy and even theology. Chait’s pursuit of a context for his facts goes only so far as to gesture towards the effect of policies “on peoples lives” – as if judgment of such effects and their meaning for human existence did not necessarily involve some “principles” and likely “dogmas.” Rather than ask such questions, he ends his essay with a charmingly faithful appeal to “progress.” “Progress” is the unthought context of much of our liberal “fact-checking.” Fact-checking certainly has its uses, although it easily, seemingly inevitably shades into ideological parsing. If we don’t agree on the facts, it’s because we don’t agree on what principles or purposes should guide (or even trump) our notion of “progress.” We don’t share a vision of what kind of people and what kind of community we want to be. That’s the stubborn Fact behind the facts.

All the facts in the world won’t save us, if we can’t cobble together some kind of working agreement, however proximate and provisional, on who human beings are and what makes human life good.


II. V.H. Cassler

I think politics has always devolved to those who have paid for the largest bullhorn. But in the past there was room for “investigative journalism” to sort out the “real facts” of a situation, and those real facts actually mattered as people made up their political minds about candidates and issues. I don’t think such room exists anymore.

While ultimately pessimistic, I think we can at least raise some obstacles to a complete devolution. More specifically, I was intrigued by a recent article by Arjun Bisen in Foreign Policy. Bisen argues that it’s time to resuscitate national election commissions:

Beyond signing codes of ethics with tech platforms, election commissions need to modernize their own regulations to create codes of conduct for online campaigns that prevents parties from operating through proxies. Campaign finance and data protection regulation also needs an update. Groups purchasing political ads online should be forced to identify their relationships with campaigns, and electoral data should not be used for micro-targeting. Citizens should know when information they’re receiving actually comes from a political party and its associates.

Here, tech companies and nongovernmental organizations can assist in investigations and developing attribution tests to understand when a proxy is or could be linked to a political party. The penalties for misleading the public should be severe and should come from existing public institutions. Just as community liaison electoral officials are the point of call for citizens to report electoral fraud, social media liaison officers could help electoral agencies gather evidence and direct action against political parties.

This will require tech platforms to also come to the table. Banning online political ads as Google did in Canada might be justified in the short term but is not a healthy long-term solution for platforms which are central to civic debate.

The work of democracy cannot be left to global tech companies alone. That responsibility rests on the public’s shoulders and those of democratic institutions. If they fail to modernize our election regulations, the democratic recession will only continue.

III. Rachel Zirkle

The Book of Mormon gives us forewarning of what happens when we choose to focus on our differences instead of striving to be united. “And the people were divided one against another; and they did separate one from another into tribes, every man according to his family and his kindred and friends; and thus they did destroy the government of the land” (3 Nephi 7:2). Communication and compromise are crucial for democracy, as is the ability to listen respectfully, even when we do not agree. I believe democracy is rendered impossible without these fundamental elements in society. Democracy, by definition, is a system of government by the whole population – it cannot be an effective way to govern when our “tribes [are becoming] exceedingly great” (3 Nephi 7:4), just like in Book of Mormon times.

We may wonder where all the hatred is coming from. I think part of the problem is the plummeting amount of actual in-person relationships due to social media and technology, broken families, declined church attendance and community involvement, which has made the need to belong more intense than ever. There is a hurt that comes with the lostness, which fuels anger as well. As the cultural attacks and finger pointing mounts, more and more people flock to the perceived safety of polarized groups. (Nephi mentions one great and spacious building, but surely it had many warring floors.) Whether an individual agrees with all the tenets of the group has become secondary to just being a part of something. Truth becomes secondary to being a part of something. This is the crisis we find ourselves in as a nation now.

I remember discussing with my late grandmother, who spent much of her life as a political stateswoman, the dilemma politicians find themselves in if they want to be backed by one of the large political parties. Even if the person who wants to run is fairly neutral (or heaven forbid, agrees with the opposing side) on some large ticket issues, that would never work for the political party. It is required to swing hard the way the party dictates to have a chance to run. Thus the crippling polarity begins before anything is packaged to the masses. In my opinion, this makes many candidates seem disingenuous, puppet-like, and not real. Because they aren’t being real, and their party requires it. As voters, we have accepted and feed into this as we cling to our identified group, come hell, high-water, or total lack of truth.

This is hard terrain to navigate as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our leaders counsel us to hold respect and civility in the highest regard, to maintain democracy and the desire to work together despite the chaos around us. The Lord has said “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). How do we be one amongst the tribes? I know the Spirit can help us answer this question, as the answer will surely be particular to each individual. I also believe building up Zion is key to this question. Missionary, temple, and family history work may seem like an obscure path to a functioning political system, but this is how we heal hearts and homes, spread unity and love, and prepare the Earth for the Savior to come again and have the ultimate government of peace. Our prophet has challenged us to be “distinct and different from the world—in happy ways” (A Plea to My Sisters, Oct 2015), and I believe this includes repelling the tribal attitudes we live in.

I have sought to do this by first, realizing that none of the current political parties fully capture my political, moral, and ethical beliefs and it is okay to not identify with one. I still think voting and being a part of the election process is critical, but I don’t vote by party. The system doesn’t make this easy—at my last election opportunity, I spent hours combing through whatever information I could find on each candidate, of every party, for each vote, so I could choose the person I felt best. Merely voting by party would have alternatively taken five minutes of my time and zero research effort. I am also frequently called during election season for political surveys. Every time, the pollsters have pressed me repeatedly to say which party would “handle the issue best” or “is best suited to solve problems” or “is most efficient,” and I respond that I think issues would be solved best by the parties being able to work together. They always tell me with annoyance they can’t take that answer. That doesn’t stop me from giving it though.

Moving forward, our country desperately needs the parties to work together and respect one another, and if they can’t dig deep and find the ability to do that, we need new political parties—ones that aren’t so extreme, limiting, and critical. This would, of course, require that we the people let go of our hatred and desperation to belong at all costs to be able to choose something better. As members of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, we know the best way to do this is to share the good news of the gospel, and most importantly, live that gospel every day. Perhaps the best way to navigate the tribes of today is to join none of them.


IV. B. Kent Harrison

I am reminded of Winston Churchill's remark, roughly to the effect that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Our government is all we've got; we have to live with it, make do, and do the best we can to improve wherever we can. That is easy to say but very difficult to do. For adults this is less of a problem; we are used to the lies and corruption we see and we can (sometimes!) sort out the truth. For children this is harder. We adults must try to help them live in such a world, teach them right from wrong, avoid disillusion and discouragement, learn to think logically, carefully evaluate what they hear and read, and maintain their religious faith. We are counseled by our leaders to pray and read our scriptures daily. That we must do for ourselves and our families. For those living in nations with oppressive governments this is even harder.


V. Neal Kramer

Philosophers since Socrates have known that the risk of democracy (in its many forms) lies with the demos—the people who are sovereign. Socrates seems to think that democracy is like a bad dream. He believes that truth is hard to come by and difficult to communicate. Few can be trusted to do the work necessary to know the truth. Those few would likely be better rulers than anyone chosen by the many. In fact, the demos are much more likely to choose someone who promises the moon and then rules very poorly.

A partial solution to the dilemma raised by Socrates might be to find a way to educate the demos. Teach them to think critically, to evaluate truth claims objectively, to find common ground with opponents. Teach them to control their passions, to avoid making superlative claims for their own positions, to establish reputable institutions that serve as protection against falsehood and undeterred power.

If such institutions exist but lose their authority or are overrun by herd thinking, democracy is in trouble. When such institutions themselves fail and can no longer function properly, the people lose their purchase on knowledge, temperance, wisdom and other virtues necessary for a good society.

Lack of standards protected by good institutions can quickly lead to social and political chaos.

This suggests to me that in a time of considerable chaos like our own, members of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ have even more responsibility than in relatively tranquil times. And this will be very difficult. Our own political free agency leaves us little room for cookie cutter politics, where we all try to be exactly like each other. In fact, cookie cutter politics is particularly vulnerable to foolishness in an age of chaos, being more likely to feed the chaos than to replace it with order, wisdom, and virtue.

The Book of Mormon warns against general political problems in the last days: institutions becoming secret combinations, those who oppose Christ from within the kingdom adopting priestcraft; pride that leads to wicked condescension, a class society, and contempt for the poor; a society that loves contention and encourages us to treat political opponents as contemptible enemies; wickedness and autocracy in high places, and the voice of the people choosing unrighteousness. We could and should identify more.

I suggest that we members of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ are already engaged in the project my few words imply, but we will need to do better. True followers of Christ act like righteous leaven in a bad society. We should beware of hiding our candles under bushels. We need to find friends who share our righteous desires. We need to listen to prophets who invite us to stay on the covenant path, especially when involved in politics. We need to sustain righteous leaders and build righteous local communities.

For me, however, we need to learn how to rely on the Restored Church of Jesus Christ to be the institution that sets the standards for truth and virtue. We need to let it rather than the wicked politics of the day define our much-needed participation in the public square. Our loyalties must be firmly with Christ, never placing expediency righteousness.


VI. Steve Cranney

The news of the death of democracy has been greatly exaggerated. We are consistently seeing relative outsiders win against established primary candidates with huge amounts of money (the past two presidents being prime examples). In this election cycle, a mayor from a mid-level Indiana town is trouncing highly established, powerful national-level figures in the polls. While money is still a factor, it isn't enough of one to compensate for overall unlikability or an unpopular agenda, so I have faith that after this next election the democratic process will continue its characteristic, left-to-right ebbs and flows around a center point that is generally representative of the public's views.