Opinion

Campaign season begins, while truth itself hangs in the balance for Kansas and country

September 7, 2022 3:33 am
Protestors in support of former President Donald Trump gather May 1, 2021, outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix where Ballots from the 2020 general election wait to be counted. (Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

Protestors in support of former President Donald Trump gather May 1, 2021, outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix where ballots from the 2020 general election wait to be recounted. (Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

With Labor Day past and full-blown political campaign season upon us, politicians have turned stretching the truth into a national pastime.  Heated claims of “fascist” and “radical” fly through the air like so many poorly aimed hand grenades. Social media outlets teem with scalding hot commentary, most of it only tangentially related to the real world.

Perhaps we should all pause to consider the intersection of facts and ideology.

As the Kansas Reflector’s opinion editor, I create commentary. It offers a progressive perspective, as you can easily ascertain by browsing the archives under my name. Yet I also write about facts, about easily checkable truths. Those cause more problems than my opinions, because we’ve arrived at a perilous point in our politics in which insistence on reality brings opprobrium.

Allow me to list a handful of examples, and Kansas Reflector columns about them.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door that was vandalized in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. There was no systemic fraud in that election, and Joe Biden didn’t just win fair and square, but by nearly 7 million votes.

Vaccines work, and COVID-19 was and remains a public health crisis. The only reason we’ve begun to approach normalcy in recent months has been widespread adoption of vaccines and boosters, along with advanced health treatment. More than a million people have died in the United States.

 Teachers don’t indoctrinate children with specific political beliefs, but instead to teach them critical thinking. Inasmuch as that leads to some students rejecting conservative thought, it’s because the thought doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Our climate is changing and presents and clear and present threat to our way of life. Our planet and descendants will suffer if we don’t immediately reduce carbon emissions.

Racism stains America. Yes, the founders talked a lot about equality, but many kept slaves. While much has been done to overcome shortcomings of the past, structural factors still exact a toll on Black and brown people.

LGBTQ people have the same virtues and foibles as straight people, the same percentage of saints and sinners. Acceptance and tolerance of difference from society as a whole improves mental and physical health.

A new crop of leaders across the United States — and in Kansas — undermines democracy by spreading falsehoods and weakening institutions.

I could go on.

For example, we could dig into the ways in which the GOP-dominated Kansas Legislature worsens the lives of the poor. Or the ways anti-abortion forces misled in advance of last month’s vote. The fact is, we know the facts. We know the truth. Sadly, for a sizable percentage of our county, stating what I did above makes me untrustworthy, a persona non grata, a hopelessly compromised ideologue.

Indeed, if you talk to reasonable conservatives, they would agree with many of the points above. They might disagree with the emphasis — some believe we don’t need to act urgently about climate change or that slavery didn’t define our nation’s origin — but they understand history and science and current affairs.

Conservatives no longer solely represent the Republican Party, however.

This was the message of President Biden last week, when he delivered a prime-time address sounding the alarm about domestic extremism. He singled out former President Trump and those who supported his attempt to keep power after the 2020 election by all means necessary. These forces, he said, represent “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

He continued later: “They fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country. They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy. But they look at that as patriots.”

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech on Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. President Biden spoke on “the continued battle for the soul of the nation.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech on Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. President Biden spoke on “the continued battle for the soul of the nation.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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No president wants to deliver such a speech. Biden surely knew that he would be assailed — as he was — by commenters who claimed he was slandering half the country.

Even that claim withers under scrutiny. The president specifically said that these extremists don’t represent a majority of the GOP. Yet the lies of his critics reverberated across the airwaves and social media.

In a nutshell, coverage of that single speech represents the bevy of obstacles America faces.

Want access to Trump? Treat his laughable claims with a veneer of seriousness. Want access to politicians in your state and town? Don’t ask them tough questions. Want to appear fair and balanced? Act as though both sides of a debate have equal claim to the truth, regardless of the situation.

In other words, coddle those who believe nonsense.

Let me put it this way: I would love to write liberal opinion pieces. I would love to write about how we need a universal, single-payer health care system. I would love to write about more generous public support programs, along with free college education and job training. I would love to write about the need for higher taxes on tycoons, and the disaster that is wealth inequality. Heck, I might even toss in a piece about Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Yet most of what I have written, and most of what I expect to write this season, reckons with the facts. I accompany those reckonings with the moral outrage of someone who has seen too many people suffer needlessly, but that’s not a liberal reaction. That’s a human one.

I lay this out now for the same reason Biden felt compelled to speak. Our state and country have approached a point where belief in outright, easily demonstrable falsehoods threaten our institutions. We cannot long survive without a healthy, representative government and vibrant, independent news media, not to mention robust public education. All three teeter on the edge of an abyss.

So this campaign season, perhaps pay less attention to the ideology of the candidates you see on television or at the Rotary Club.

Ask if they recognize the facts of our current situation instead.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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