Opinion: Kansas’ post-truth fail goes national

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

— Daniel Patrick Moynihan

To prepare for life in post-truth America, just study the example of Kansas politics since 2010, when Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach were elected.

What is post-truth? The Oxford English Dictionary declares it the word of the year, with this definition: Relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Comedian Stephen Colbert beat the OED to the punch. Several years ago, he named this “truthiness” — if a statement feels true, it is true; no thinking needed. Actual truth requires rigorous analysis and factual verification, while post-truth claims are evaluated based on whether they fit with one’s political ideology. Hence the explosion of “fake news” sites this year, which post entirely fabricated stories on social media, always pushing emotional buttons and frequently forwarded to hundreds or even thousands of people without being verified by reliable sources beforehand.

Kansans know all about post-truth. Consider President-elect Donald J. Trump’s recent tweet stating that the 2016 elections featured “millions of fraudulent votes.” Kobach agrees with the claim, citing a study that he is taking out of context. Scholars and policymakers have combed through evidence of possible voter fraud for years, finding virtually no confirmed cases. We also have major concerns about the way laws meant to combat this fraud have the actual effect of removing tens of thousands of people from the voting rolls in Kansas alone. Yet to fact-check Trump’s and Kobach’s claims is to live in the past — under post-truth, the claim sounds right to their supporters, so it’s true.

Under post-truth, governing is a disaster. Policymakers each have their own, completely different set of biases and “facts” and with no common standard by which to verify claims, make judgments or negotiate. Politics becomes a contest of emotional manipulation: Whoever can yell louder, frighten more people, make us feel better, or do more to re-animate old prejudices is automatically declared (by themselves) to be the winner. Partisan news media custom-tailor reports to what their audiences want to hear, and if the real facts cannot be spun enough to fit the story, no problem — we can just make some up.

Brownback’s economic policies exemplify post-truth policymaking. At his behest, the state has drained long-held trust funds for highways, children’s health and employee health care, and has had its bond rating downgraded several times. Medicaid benefits have been cut, and the state has gotten hauled into court over school funding.

Brownback supporters responded with a truly post-truth approach: Instead of fixing the budget’s gaping wound, they tried to remove the judges who are ruling against them from office, in this year’s retention elections. They failed, as the judges were retained with over 55 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the promised economic growth from tax cuts has never materialized. Perhaps this is why Brownback’s approval ratings are 50th out of 50 among U.S. governors.

Brownback’s reaction? In a post-election interview with The Associated Press’ John Hanna, the governor said the voters gave him “good, high marks” because Republicans still have large majorities in the Legislature. In so doing, he ignored not only the seats lost to Democrats, but also the moderate surge in this summer’s Republican primaries. Many of these successful “mods” explicitly ran against Brownback’s agenda, some even going so far as to put the words “Stop Brownback” on their yard signs, right next to the Republican elephant. Yet to Brownback, the election feels like a mandate, so it must be one.

“Stop Brownback” equals “Support Brownback,” and post-truth wins again. Will President-elect Trump elevate post-truth politics to the national stage?

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.