The consequences of “alternative” facts

January 7, 2021

Dear Changemakers:

Like you, I watched in horror yesterday as rioters, called to action and incited to violence by the lies of the president of the United States, stormed the Capitol and tried to halt the certification of a free and fair presidential election. Four people are reported to have died in the melee. The president belittled his own vice president and other leaders in his party for participating in the constitutional transfer of power to a duly elected candidate. I am confident that the highest office in the land will be occupied, on Inauguration Day, by the electorate’s choice. But the forces unleashed will not be so quickly contained.

For four years, many Americans have been taught not to petition their governments for the changes they seek but to act directly on bigotry and fear, base instinct, and grievance. Too many members of the president’s party, along with some in the media and aligned special interests, empowered and encouraged him and his followers to fuel anger, to demean and defile, and, in some cases, to take up arms. Notable exceptions include the many Republican governors, judges, and election officials who withstood great pressure and protected the rule of law. I had hoped it would be enough, but still yesterday, some members of Congress continued to aid and abet the president’s dangerous election charade.   

These dismaying events are in part the direct consequences of a world of “alternative” facts: truth and evidence have been under assault for the past four years, and yesterday, that assault manifested in a failed insurrection. 

In this next chapter, I hope that we hold accountable the enablers—not just those who encouraged the angry mobs but those who knowingly perpetuated the disinformation that fueled their rage. Let’s have a fact- and value-filled debate about who gains and who loses from policy choices. We should demand that our leaders at every level, in every party, across all sectors join in restoring “small-D” democratic values. We should insist that all who have a stake also have power and voice to participate equitably. Disputing and finding facts through deliberation is not the same as perpetuating lies. We should elevate the debate. Without trusted sources, common values, and grounding in facts, we cannot learn, solve problems, and govern ourselves.   

The pandemic demonstrates just how much we need to rebuild these skills as a nation—both to save lives and eventually to restore our nation’s leadership in the world.

In short, I hope yesterday’s events are a wake-up call and yield a turn toward truth and facts. At the Urban Institute, our commitment to providing “power through knowledge” feels more essential than ever before.

Warmly,

Sarah