Guest speakers discuss the need to hold truthful political discussions
Three Conservative public thinkers spoke about the “Assault on Truth” in American politics and how to address it, Oct. 19.
The John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics brought in Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, Jonathan Rauch; President of the Trinity Forum, Cherie Harder; and Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, Peter Wehner to speak during an informal lunch and a more formal evening conversation about the current state of political discourse.
The trio began their conversation in the evening by outlining the stakes of political attacks on the truth before discussing how Americans can prevent this assault and begin to build connections between those with differing political ideologies.
When asked what element of truth will be the most critical in the impending elections, Rauch responded “stop the steal.”
“A lot of this election is being waged by Republican candidates who are making a central issue of the lie that the election was stolen,” he said. “So that puts truth front and center.”
Wehner and Harder agreed with Rauch’s claim.
“There are a lot of Republicans who know better and know that Stop The Steal is dishonest,” Wehner said.
He continued on to describe what he believes to be the toxic nature of the current Republican party. “If you speak against the assault [on truth directly], you end up like Liz Cheney. If you go along with it, you end up like Ron DeSantis or Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Wehner said.
Harder said that truth is no longer universally recognized. “We’re at a point where we don’t all agree on what’s true or false or even real or unreal, and that is kind of new territory,” she said.
The ramifications of this reality are immense, especially in a political environment, Rauch said. “Mass disinformation, once unleashed…is hard to contain.” According to Rauch, disinformation seems even more impossible to restrict now that “a political party has become dependent on it.”
Harder said that misinformation is the most damaging when it helps to sow doubt in our election system. “When you’re sowing confusion about the outcome of our election…other [political] skirmishes are essentially rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said.
The speakers also commented on the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency on truth. When asked about the potential ramifications of a Trump victory in 2024, Rauch and Wehner predicted grave consequences for the country that would permanently alter the U.S. political sphere.
“The rule of law would be severely compromised,” Rauch said. “Prosecutions would be weaponized against political enemies, [and] hacks would be put in political jobs up and down the government…in order to insulate corruption.”
Wehner followed up with Rauch that, “he is looking at life through rose-colored glasses; it would be a lot worse than what he described.” Wehner stated that Trump is “sociopathic” and “would be on a vengeance tour” if he became president again.
“One of the most important things to understand about the last half dozen years is that there’s no place Trump won’t go, and there’s no place the Republican party won’t follow him if he goes there,” Wehner said.
The Path Ahead
After the speakers spoke to how hopeless many people currently feel about the current state of politics, they spoke to how certain religious ideologies can aid the search for truth.
“Love [thy] neighbor is part of what is supposed to motivate and inform our sense of what is right,” Harder said. “Wanting the good of the other…is a faith-based mandate to care for those around us.”
Rauch underscored the importance of religious institutions in America.
“It turns out that if American religious institutions are not doing [their] job of providing a greater vision, a thicker sense of community, a sense of purpose in life, and undergirding civic values, the substitutes are worse,” he said. The main substitute he referenced was social media, something all three speakers pointed to as a frail source for facts and truth.
The speakers also discussed areligous ways to strengthen the sense of truth in our nation.
Wehner spoke about how to have conversations, even when they do not have a sense of shared truth. Wehner happens to be a massive fan of C.S. Lewis so used Lewis’ idea of “first friends and second friends,” mentioned in Lewis’ autobiography, to articulate his thoughts.
“The first friend [is] the alter ego; you start a sentence, your friend can complete it. [Imagine] raindrops coming together on the pane of a window,” he said. “Second friend…[is] the person that you read all the same books and the other person draws all the wrong conclusions.”
Wehner explained how Lewis would sometimes argue with his second friends all night long.
“[They would] almost imperceptib[ly] begin to shake each other’s views,” he said. The key was that “when Lewis and [his second friends] debated, [they] never debated for victory [they] debated for truth,” Wehner said.
Wehner believes that we can depolarize our society by having conversations to “engage in a [way] so you can better see the truth,” not just to “ beat [opponents] for victory.”
Harder provided a suggestion for overcoming political hurdles related to truth: book clubs.
“Start reading groups,” she said. “[A book club is] a group of people united in paying close attention to a text in the spirit of hospitality and community. It is something small that just about anybody can do.”
Harder said that reading long-form literature “requires empathy and imagination as opposed to just going straight to reasoning and analysis,” which he said is not usually found in social media posts and article headlines. According to Harder, book clubs can help their participants to build a willingness for different opinions and understand how to argue solely based on a shared truth.
Before the event came to an end, Rauch responded to an audience member’s question about how each individual can better the role of truth.
“I think that you [should] want to defend the open society where hard conversations can happen and where we have to encounter people we fundamentally disagree with,” Rauch said. “Even [if we] think [they] are bigoted because first, they may have something to teach us [and] second, we may succeed in teaching them.”