One of the most jarring things I’ve learned during the Trump presidency is that facts don’t have the power that I thought they did.
I once started a project called, “Just the Facts”. Not very original, I know. I started it the late 1990s with the brilliant, Adam Isacson. We gathered all of the publically available (but hard to acquire) information on US security programs with Latin America. These programs are funded out of various parts of the US budget – State, Defense, and Justice. Our goal was to have an informed critique of the whole picture and along the way to make the information we gathered available to others. We wrote three books and then produced an online research tool.
I knew that we had struck a chord when a Pentagon official ordered a couple dozen copies of the first book. He told me that he did so because they didn’t have this information compiled anywhere. Then, a congressional staffer called and asked me to help them draft legislative language that would make the Departments of State and Defense produce a single comprehensive annual report on the US training of foreign militaries.
Showing people the facts seemed to make a difference. By having a baseline of facts, we could have a real discussion about what our policies should and shouldn’t look like.
During my last year at WOLA, Trump was running for president. He said things about the border and migration that I knew to be untrue. WOLA had a project on border security and migration. We responded by pumping out facts. We had great access to media, print journalists in particular – the best in the country. But presenting the facts in a compelling fashion wasn’t getting traction.
I discussed this problem with WOLA’s board chair, Steve Bennett, who at that time was the COO of the Brookings Institution (one of the most important think tanks in DC). He was mulling over the same problem. As he put it, “The death of facts is an existential crisis for the think tank community.”
Over the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about political divisions in the US, how people make political decisions and process information. A lot of people are writing about this subject, recognizing and analyzing it.
The problem is that almost no one is telling us what we can do about it.
Here are few points I’ve drawn from my studies, reading, and experience.
We all suffer from confirmation bias. We look for information that confirms what we already believe. That makes it easy to connect with your existing base.
We all operate in information bubbles. We get a positive response when putting out facts to the people in our networks because they likely already agree with us.
Just to see and hear things that challenge our beliefs, we have to work for it. Opposing opinions don’t naturally flow to us (with the exception of what Trump says every day on Twitter).
People connect with information at a gut or moral level before they do at an intellectual level. You have to figure out how to make the emotional connection before someone outside of your bubble has much chance of hearing you.
Breaking across bubbles in this age of communications seems to me one of our greatest challenges. It is at the heart of overcoming the political divisions that exist.
When I think about my belief in the power of facts, I’m beginning to understand that the success of the “Just the Facts” project was the relationship between facts and people.
We weren’t successful because we spit out good facts, although that did provide us with a level of credibility. We were successful because we spent so much time talking with people while gathering the information. It made them more receptive to our analysis.
We were influential because we built unprecedented relationships with key players in the Pentagon, Congress, State and the press. Each sector talked to us because we were informed by the other.
I still believe in facts, but facts alone have their limits. They are most powerful when they are part of an ongoing conversation.