Illinois Issues: Great American Divide

Dec 8, 2016

The presidential election highlighted a divide that is so deep, citizens in Illinois and across the country can’t even agree on the same set of facts.

Science … means more than a set of conclusions; it means also a set of methods and intellectual habits. The most important of these habits is adherence to a rule that is felt to be at once intellectual and moral, the rule of adjusting one’s assent to the evidence.  — Yale philosopher Brand Blanshard

Commentary — I knew an older, comfortably retired downstate Illinois man who had a big fishing boat, a roomy house, two cars, a massive gun collection and an expensive RV.

He constantly complained that poor black people and uppity women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi had cheated him out of something or other that he couldn’t quite specify.

He spent years sure that white feminists, black criminals and other such ne’er-do-wells were just about to take something from him. He was still waiting for the robbery the day he died, never having lost a cent of his considerable wealth.

It’s not that he wasn’t a friendly man, even a generous one. His son told me the man had been racially tolerant in his youth, but that something had changed.

The things this elderly man “knew” were certainly not the things I know. How could we be living a few miles apart, and in different factual universes?

And yet, in several senses, we do live in separate universes now. Our presidential election revealed a national split right down the middle, with the losing side regarding the winner as a con man unqualified even to run for office, let alone win the presidency. 

But then the winning side regarded his establishment opponent — a career politician dogged by vague but persistent accusations of scandal concerning emails and Benghazi, relentlessly repeated by the corporate media — as prima facie untrustworthy.

President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off in a debate in Las Vegas
Credit Hillary Cliinton Campaign

This political chasm isn’t only partisan, but geographical, cultural, educational and cognitive. Hillary Clinton won handily in urban Cook, Lake, Kane, DuPage and Will counties, but not in 91 of Illinois’ other counties. Clinton won 55.7 percent of the vote in Champaign County, home of the University of Illinois. Trump took all the surrounding counties.

Illinois observers might have anticipated this great national divide because it had already played out here, with disastrous economic and cultural results.

The election of private equity billionaire Bruce Rauner as governor in 2014 marked the arrival of purely partisan paralysis in Illinois. Attempting to arm-twist Democrats into enacting his anti-union policies, Rauner has presided over the state without a budget for more than a year. That lack of a spending plan has wrecked the state’s credit rating and imperiled the continued existence of several public universities.

However, Rauner’s rival, Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, is the poster child for entrenched political power. Just before the 2016 election, a poll by Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute revealed Madigan to be even more unpopular than Rauner among all registered voters, with 55 percent disapproving of Rauner’s performance and 63 percent disapproving of Madigan’s.

When voters want things to change, the apparent “outsider” has an appeal as a figure freed from “the special interests.”

In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama’s campaigns drew serious support from small donors. “Nearly half of the donors to Obama’s re-election campaign in 2011 gave $200 or less, more than double the proportion seen in 2007,” the Washington Post noted. “Obama raised more money in aggregate from small donors — $56.7 million — than Romney raised overall.”

Bernie Sanders’ appeal for small donations — “whether it’s 10 bucks, or 20 bucks, or 50 bucks” — had a similar success, enabling him to credibly claim he couldn’t be bought by the powerful. 

President Barack Obama's 2008 victory signaled that voters were looking for change. Several Illinois counties that went for Obama also favored Trump, who presented himself as a change candidate, too.

For Republicans, that same claim formed part of the appeal of the billionaires Rauner and Trump. After all, voters may have reasoned, who could afford to buy them?

In 2014, Rauner made that appeal explicit. “Rauner won’t take a salary or a pension,” his TV ads boasted. “He can’t be bought.”

What frustrated voters have long bought into,  however, is the siren song of change.

Thirty-three of Illinois’s 102 counties shifted from the Democratic to the Republican column between the “change” elections of 2008 and 2016 — Alexander, Boone, Bureau, Calhoun, Cass, Coles, Fulton, Gallatin, Henderson, Henry, Jo Daviess, Kankakee, Kendall, Knox, LaSalle, Macon, Macoupin, Madison, Mason, McDonough, McHenry, McLean, Mercer, Montgomery, Pulaski, Putnam, Sangamon, Schuyler, Stephenson, Vermilion, Warren, Whiteside and Winnebago. 

Trump’s win in 2016 does mark it as a change election, although that factor can be overstated. After all, the establishment candidate actually won the popular vote. 

However, Americans’ desire for change seems to extend well beyond politics. Gallup notes that confidence in all American institutions has remained historically low since 2007. That includes not just the presidency, the Supreme Court and Congress but also the criminal justice system, the military, police, organized religion, health care, the public schools, banks, organized labor, big business and the news media.

Of course having change as a goal doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere useful. A volcanic eruption is a change. Change doesn’t help unless you’re aware of what changes would actually serve your interests and in which direction they lie. That’s why the troublesome Great American Divide plunges deeper than politics. 

Illinois observers might have anticipated this great national divide because it had already played out here, with disastrous economic and cultural results.

“I am used to being able to have a conversation that makes sense,” former Pekin Daily Times editor Michelle Mueller Teheux observed in 2015. “Even when it’s someone whose political or worldviews are quite different from mine, I can usually respect that their views … are valid.

“However, I just finished a Facebook thread full of birthers and other idiots who sincerely believe the craziest stuff. I don’t know how we can begin to fix the things that are wrong with this world when you can have people who finished high school say that Obama was born in Kenya and did not produce a birth certificate. They don’t have a single bit of evidence, of course, because none exists. But they are vehemently insisting they are right.”

Political scientist John Jackson of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University agreed with Teheux, noting that the “birther” issue was settled early when the Republican Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, asked the City Clerk of Honolulu, also a Republican, to confirm after a review of the official record that Obama’s birth certificate was authentic. 

Jackson says that should have been the end of the story. “But Donald Trump and other media celebrities kept the whole thing alive for years thereafter,” he says. “That action alone taken by Trump should have disqualified him for all time from ever being taken seriously by the media or by the voters, but it became a part of his rise to power.”

Jackson says political discourse has been compromised “by the failure of the media, the candidates and the public to understand what facts are and how important it is to recognize how they are established.”

The idea of having arrived at a “post-truth” era is an ominous one, he says.

“Much of the media and the public have only a rudimentary grasp of how the scientific method works and how scientific facts are established.  Thus, many candidates will run on platforms that are based on what makes them famous or what they think the public wants to hear,” he says. “Usually this then results in them making grandiose claims and offering prescriptions for complicated social, economic and political problems that are appealing, but either completely wrong or mostly based on fiction but that prove to be popular with the voters.”

Jackson cites the media-driven phony scare over vaccinations causing autism and the rejection of the scientific consensus on global climate change as other areas where the public has been led to reject the facts out of hand. 

Credit Credit Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Fact-free media leads to magical thinking. Some say earthquakes are caused by the energy released when underground rock suddenly breaks along a fault, and some say gay people cause them. We report. You decide.

Journalistic objectivity is a fine thing as long as it helps reveal the truth, but not when it’s employed as a means of hiding the facts.

Media malpractice and the technological upheaval in digital communications have conspired to create a situation in which we can no longer agree on what the facts are.

For example, that comfortably retired gentlemen whom I mentioned spent his days listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

To the extent that they can get away with it, sources like Fox News falsify facts. For example, which political party a politician belongs to isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a fact Fox News lies about.

Fox News suddenly identified disgraced Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina as a Democrat on the very day he admitted his philandering.

A coincidence? But Fox News also suddenly changed Congressman Mark Foley’s party affiliation from Republican to Democratic the very moment it was inescapably confirmed that Foley was sexually soliciting teenage male pages in Congress.

Just “mistakes,” don’t you imagine? But isn’t it funny how every “mistake” Fox News makes manages to falsely malign Democrats and/or shield guilty Republicans?

Fox News has its Illinois propaganda ax to grind, as well, constantly characterizing Democratically controlled Chicago as an irredeemable hellhole.

While Fox provides some of the most egregious examples, other cable news networks have had their problems when it comes to making errors or taking statements out of context to support a narrative. But corporate news media, including Fox, broadcast at least some fact-based traditional news — unlike newer “news sources” created for the express purpose of lying.

For example, an outfit called American News offered an article under this headline: “Denzel Washington Backs Trump in the Most Epic Way Possible. Denzel is now Team Trump!” The claim was false, but the article was shared 10,000 times in six hours.

But you can still trust network news, right? Not necessarily. Colombia-based sites with urls like “nbc.com.co” have been peddling fake news to readers fooled into thinking they come from credible sources like NBC or CBS. (At the bottom of this page, you can find resources to help identify fake news stories and sources.)

In Illinois, regional “newspapers” have recently sprung up that are put out by the Rauner-backed Liberty Principles PAC. Published only sporadically but made to resemble actual community newspapers, these publications with names like the “East Central Reporter” mix innocuous local items with political propaganda disguised as independent, objective news articles.

Warning that news consumers should be skeptical of the legitimacy and integrity of such sources, the Illinois Press Association noted, “The newspapers published under the banners of Chambana Sun, DuPage Policy Journal, East Central Reporter, Kankakee Times, Lake County Gazette, McHenry Times, Metro East Sun, North Cook News, Rock Island Today, Sangamon Sun, SW Illinois News, West Central Reporter, West Cook News, are not members of the Illinois Press Association, nor are they eligible for membership in the Association.”

Like infomercials on TV, Rauner’s fake newspapers ape the forms of traditional journalism to subvert its purpose. The sacrifice of journalistic credibility to propaganda, false balance and amusement finally adds up to a form of societal suicide, like walking along a cliff's edge drunk, with your eyes closed.

So why is reforming the way the news media operates never on the agenda? Well, consider who sets the agenda. “It’s a much more difficult issue to organize around, because you can’t get media at all to make your case,” University of Illinois media critic and journalism professor Robert McChesney noted. “And that’s where cases tend to be made politically.”

But media malpractice, pervasive and reprehensible as it is, is not the whole story here. Citizens are not merely being misinformed. They are also misinforming themselves.

And the problem is not confined to the uneducated. A 2016 Stanford Graduate School of Education report found that “tech-savvy” students had an alarming inability to identify the sources of internet information and couldn’t distinguish between news articles and ads.

In the age of digital communications, we are not all our own journalists, as some naively predicted we would be. Generally untrained to sort fact from fiction, we don’t qualify for that job. But we are all our own editors. We select the kinds of news stories we’re going to see in our digital media bubble, with confirmation bias built right into our individual news feeds. 

Of course having change as a goal doesn't necessarily get us anywhere useful. A volcanic eruption is a change.

It’s not facts that American citizens lack today. Literally at their fingertips, they have something that approximates the total of human cultural knowledge. What’s missing is the ability to recognize facts and the willingness to accept them. What’s missing are critical thinking skills and intellectual honesty.

Illinois’ most pressing problems are also exacerbated by this inability to distinguish fact from fiction, Jackson observed.

“The most important example in my opinion is the public’s beliefs about the Illinois state budget and the constant stream of misinformation, half-truths and lies that they have been fed by some of their leaders,” he says. “Our polls at the Paul Simon Institute consistently have shown that a plurality, and near majority of the people, believe that the Illinois budget problem can be cured by eliminating  ‘waste and fraud’ and thus can be done painlessly.  They also believe that the state takes in enough revenue and doesn’t need any more.”

Jackson points to the state’s $10.7 billion in unpaid bills as evidence that Illinois needs more money. That number is expected to reach $13.5 billion by summer and to $20 billion by the summer of 2018.

“There is not nearly enough waste and fraud to address that deficit. The whole statewide campaign in 2014 was predicated on not telling the truth about what would happen if the state income tax increase was allowed to expire on January 1, 2015,” Jackson says. “People ran for high office and for legislative office, and were elected, perpetuating the myth that the revenue from the temporary tax increase in 2011 to 2015 was just wasted.”

Jackson notes that the state’s fiscal situation was improving after the tax increase, and Illinois was actually paying down its bill backlog. “But that is not the myth that was created, so we gave ourselves a tax decrease and the budget deficit exploded and the budget impasse developed which has made it all worse.”

This critical thinking issue precedes and underlies politics. If we don’t know what the facts are, we can’t know where our interests lie. Of course, many would prefer that we don’t.

Public relations, advertising, religion, bureaucracy and partisan politicians often work to subvert critical thinking. Yes, our educational institutions praise critical thinking, but sometimes hollowly and warily. Real critical thinking is often at odds with institutional authority because it accepts only the authority of fact.

Nevertheless, we must find a way to rededicate ourselves to critical thinking. Starving Illinois public universities to death on funding is not a step in the right direction, by the way.

Any bridge spanning the great American divide will begin where this article did, at Blanshard’s point — the point where we all, finally, agree to recognize and accept factual evidence. 

Resources for improving critical thinking and vetting information:

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.