A Post-Trump Guide to Stopping the Lies and Healing Our Politics – Mother Jones
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Cass Sunstein is a public intellectual and provocateur – and he’s been thinking about a topical issue: public lie.
As a longtime Harvard law professor and expert in behavioral economics, Sunstein has authored a number of books, including volumes on cost-benefit analysis, conspiracy theories, animal rights, US authoritarianism, decision-making, and Star Wars. He is currently co-authoring a book on human judgment with the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman. He was recently named Senior Counselor in the Department of Homeland Security, where he will oversee the Biden administration’s withdrawal of Donald Trump’s policies. (Some progressives who criticized Sunstein for strangling regulations when he was the regulatory tsar for President Barack Obama were concerned about returning to government service for Sunstein, but his appointment to DHS did not cause any fuss.) But briefly before re-entering the federal government, he published his latest work: Liars: Untruths and Freedom of Speech in the Age of Deception.
The book is certainly a product of the Trump era, a route in which the “former man” made 30,583 false or misleading claims when he was president, according to the Washington Post. All of his lies worked. Donald Trump was elected despite – or because of – his series lie. After his tsunami of truth-finding, he almost won re-election. And after the election, Trump promoted the big lie that victory was stolen from him and his crusade sparked an insurgent raid on the Capitol that threatened the confirmation of the vote. After all of this – and after Trump’s misleading statements about the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans – Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party and a hero to tens of millions of Americans.
So what can be done to thwart such lies? Especially in times of increasing disinformation, wild and woolly social media, QAnon, deepfakes and widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories?
In his book, Sunstein discusses why lies can be successful (“Faleshoods are more likely to spread than the truth”) and how difficult it is – especially given the freedoms of the First Amendment – to counteract them. He states that certain forms of lying can be punished: perjury, defamation and false advertising. And he advocates widening the category of lies that should be officially punished, noting: “Governments should have the power to regulate certain lies and falsehoods, at least if they can be shown to be genuinely harmful by an objective measure . ” However, this is much more difficult than I said.
I spoke to Sunstein about all of this for the Mother Jones podcast. And we got into the big issue: given that a debate about lies and what to do about it is, in a sense, a debate about reality, how can we function as a democratic society if we don’t agree on it are what is and what is not that is not it?