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When People Have Their 'Own Facts,' Agreeing On Practical Solutions To Common Problems Becomes Impossible

April 20, 2010

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., once said that "everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

These days, it appears our society increasingly rejects that notion. More and more people are getting their information from clearly ideological and partisan sources, whether it be political talk shows on cable television, talk radio or on the Internet.

From what they hear, they develop their own sets of facts. People on both the right and the left are adopting the old Burger King slogan of "have it your way" -- constructing their own realities based on their own sets of facts, which are free of nuance and leave little room for gray areas.

 

The left has to come to grips with the fact that federal spending has to be trimmed, while the right has to realize that taxes will have to go up.

This was not as much the case when people received their news from the same newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks. It was, arguably, fairly homogenized, and conservatives would say it had a liberal bias. Nevertheless, people received their information from the same places and formed their own opinions, some voting Republican, some voting Democratic, and others swinging back and forth. But exit polls now show that straight-ticket voting is on the increase.

Today, there are alternate universes. We are in an age of narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. Whether from television, radio, print or the Internet, people are increasingly seeking their information from outlets more clearly identified with either the left or the right. They seek comfort in getting their news where they feel a sense of shared values with the hosts or writers. Their feelings are reinforced and often amplified rather than challenged or complicated by facts that do not comport with their beliefs.

Someone who is fairly conservative and tunes in to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck on a regular basis is likely to get even more conservative the longer and more often he or she listens.

Similarly, someone who is fairly liberal and who tunes in to Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz often enough will very likely get even more liberal.

These hosts from the right and left are armed with a "set of facts" that support their points of view. The facts are carefully cherry-picked and cleverly delivered. These hosts are not without talent, and whatever one might think of their views, they are all very good at what they do.

Whether or not one approved of President George W. Bush's performance in his eight years in office, it would be very difficult to argue that he did not cut taxes a lot. A liberal might look at this and argue that those tax cuts contributed to federal budget deficits, and would no doubt point out that there was a surplus when he took office and a big deficit when he left. But Sept. 11, two wars and passage of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare certainly contributed to that bottom line.

The point is that federal taxes were cut, which is why William Gale, the Brookings Institution's senior fellow for economic studies and co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, noted it was "ironic, if not bizarre, that the tea party got going during a time when federal taxes were at their lowest in about 60 years."

A conundrum that President Obama and Democrats in Congress face is whether to extend the Bush tax cuts just for those with incomes under $250,000 or to avoid the political pain and extend all of them for a couple of years, knowing the budgetary impact would be great and would exacerbate the deficit. It's hard to watch the Tea Party rallies, though, and wonder how many attendees would swear up and down that Gale has no idea what he is talking about.

Where the Tea Party types are not crazy is that with the national debt soaring, entitlement spending continuing to grow uncontrolled and federal spending spiraling upward, both before and since Barack Obama was sworn in, taxes would have to go up sooner or later, whether or not the president and congressional Democrats had a more expansive view of the role of government. The truth is even if the entire FY10 domestic discretionary budget of $671 billion was eliminated, it would still leave about half of what would have been the 2010 federal budget deficit.

The left has to come to grips with the fact that federal spending has to be trimmed, while the right has to realize that taxes will have to go up. The idea on the left that all we need to do is raise taxes is just as nutty as the conservative view that all we have to do is cut non-defense spending or that the budget can be balanced through economic growth. But with all of the political arguing that is dominating the airwaves and the Web, these cold realities just aren't getting discussed in most of these conversations.

The problem, of course, is that many of the candidates or elected officials who might attempt to articulate these views will soon meet the definition of a statesman: "a defeated politician."

Such truth-telling is not likely to be easy in primaries or general elections. No good deed goes unpunished.

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