Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Fact-checking the Candidates: A Sacred Ritual

Oct 15, 2012

Fact-checking the Candidates: A Sacred Ritual


Romney as Pagliacci -- acting out the theater state. Credit: Flickr/HNN staff.

There’s an old theory that people perform religious rituals as a way of acting out their sacred myths. Scholars of religion don’t take this old theory very seriously any more. It’s far too simplistic and misses too many aspects of the meaning of function of ritual. Sometimes, though, this theory still sheds interesting light on rituals. It’s especially useful when a ritual does pretty obviously act out a myth and the people performing the ritual tell you that they are reenacting one of their myths.

A fine example is the Christian ritual of Eucharist: eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. In the Gospel story of the Last Supper, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to keep on eating bread and drinking wine after he is gone, because those consumables are his body and blood. When you ask Christians who believe that the consumables literally become the body and blood why they are doing the ritual, they’ll tell you that they are obeying Jesus’s command and doing exactly what the disciples did. They are acting out their sacred myth.

Christians, when I call the Gospel story a myth, please don’t be offended. I don’t mean it’s a lie. A myth is a narrative that people tell to express their most basic views about what the world is like and how they should live in it. The myth serves that purpose whether it’s totally false, totally true, or (as is usually the case) some mixture of the two. So it’s perfectly possible that every word in the Gospels tells us what actually, literally happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels would still be Christians’ mythology.  

Fact-checking the myth is irrelevant to its role in the lives of the people who tell it.  They do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, it shapes their view of truth; it tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. So they act out their myth in a ritual to reinforce their commitment to truth as the myth teaches them to see it -- or so the old theory goes.

It’s worthwhile dusting off that old theory in this election season, which presents us with an interesting twist: What happens when fact-checking itself becomes a ritual? I don’t have quantitative data, but it seems to me that we have much more fact-checking in this presidential election than in any election before. Fact-checkers seem to be all over the place.

And the mass news media promote their fact-checking as a major part of their campaign coverage. They treat it as something their audience really wants. Since they are in business to make money, presumably they do have quantitative data; presumably they’ve done market research that shows they can increase their ratings or readership with all that fact-checking.

Why is fact-checking so popular? The traditional American view of democracy has a ready answer: The people know that, to be responsible voters, they must know the facts. How else can they judge which party’s policies are best for the nation? And they must know whether the candidates are leveling with them. We want a president who is a straight-shooter, not one who will deceive us for his or her own political gain.

There’s a complex myth of democracy packed into that little story. There’s a basic premise: Democracy can work because we humans are rational animals. We are built to be fact-checkers; we all have the capacity to separate true facts from lies. And once we have true facts, we know how to analyze them logically to come to reasonable conclusions. If that weren’t true, democracy would be a foolish experiment, indeed.

But, the myth goes on to say, a capacity is useless unless it is developed through training. That’s why democracy demands universal access to education. How much education is a matter of debate; other democracies tend to set the bar higher than we Americans. The basic concept is the same in all democracies, though: Only educated people can be responsible citizens because only the educated have actualized their potential for fact-checking and rational thinking.

Many of the reformers who promoted universal public education in the nineteenth century (for boys at least; some weren’t sure about girls’ capacity for reasoning) were motivated by that myth. Of course capitalism also drove education reform; the industrial revolution created a demand for more educated workers, just as the high-tech revolution has in our own time. But a genuine commitment to the mythic vision of democracy played a significant role back then. (We’re probably too close to evaluate how much of a role it plays in moves toward expanding educational opportunity today.) 

The myth of democracy says that citizens must educated enough to know which policies are best for their community. But good citizens must also bring their rationality into the polling booth. They must know which candidates promote and implement the right policies. They must know whether incumbents have done so, and whether challengers might do better. That means they must have honesty from their leaders and transparency from their government.

Hence, the need for fact-checkers at every step on the campaign trail. It’s only logical.

Except that there’s no evidence all the fact-checking has any measurable impact on the voters’ choices.

As soon as the first presidential debate ended, many Obama supporters were quite gleeful. Mitt Romney had made so many demonstrably false statements, and denied his own positions so often, that it seemed like a bonanza for the Democrats. They duly set about broadcasting that bonanza, falsehood and deception by falsehood and deception.

And look what they got for their efforts.

Even the prominent pro-Obama intellectual Robert Reich, a master of progressive ideas, opens and closes his “Memo to the President” for the next debate with advice about performance style. Though Reich offers plenty of ideas too, he knows that ideas hardly mattered any more than facts in the outcome of the first debate. Romney won on style points alone.

The “theater state” is a performance art. Every candidate is judged, above all, on their performance. Good theatrical performers know how to create satisfying illusory images of truth. It’s one of their highest skills. Mitt Romney proved that in the first debate. The big question, all the mass media reports tell us, is whether Barack Obama can prove equal to the task in the second debate.

Michael Scherer’s conclusion to his perceptive Time cover story on fact-checking is quite on the money:

When the final book is written on this campaign, one-sided deception will still have played a central role. As it stands, the very notions of fact and truth are employed in American politics as much to distort as to reveal. And until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change.

But why should the voting public demand something else? They’ve already got this enormous stage in the political theater packed to the rafters with fact-checkers. The fact-checkers are performing their duly appointed role in the drama, just as the candidates are. The fact-checkers, too, are seasoned performers skilled in the art of creating satisfying illusory images of truth.

Above all, they create the illusion that American democracy is alive and well because the public is apparently being informed of the facts and the veracity of each candidate is apparently being carefully evaluated and widely reported. Fact-checking, then, is the ritual enactment of our myth of democracy. As long as the myth keeps getting acted out, we can trust that it is alive and well.

There has been growing suspicion over the years whether democracy really is alive and well in this postmodern world, where signs are increasingly detached from the reality they claim to signify. The ritual of fact-checking eases the anxiety about the state of our democracy in this “theater state.” That, I submit, is why fact-checking is so popular.

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