Liberals Still Think Fact-Checking Will Stop the Right. They’re Wrong.

For today’s liberals, the default approach to combating the Right is to fact-check the Right. But conservatives aren’t contestants in a debating contest: they’re waging a political struggle and playing to win. Fact-checking won’t save us.

US president Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on July 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty

In the hallowed tradition of hastily written and instantly forgettable election year books, David Plouffe’s A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump amounts to pretty standard fare. Given its author’s bona fides (Plouffe served as Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, a fact emblazoned on the front cover for those still unaware), readers who expect a master class in grand strategy will, I must regretfully report, be let down. As I’ve written elsewhere, Plouffe essentially spends two hundred pages telling rank-and-file Democrats to canvass, make sure their friends are registered to vote, and post regularly on social media.

Suffice it to say that, for a book that’s supposedly about what the average person can do to fight Donald Trump, it’s heavy on banal anecdotes from throughout Plouffe’s career and embarrassingly thin on insights about campaigning or political strategy. Although these add up to a very dull read, I was quite struck by several passages dealing with what the author wants liberal partisans to do to fight conservatism online come election season. Among all the instructions Plouffe offers his readers, the most clearly fleshed out has to do with how they should be reacting to right-wing narratives on social media. His premise is a simple and familiar one:

Trump unleashes lies at an unprecedented rate, and his accomplices in the Fox News/Sinclair/Breitbart media-entertainment vortex from hell defend every single one . . . Young voters will be served ads claiming that the Democratic nominee is in bed with the fossil-fuel industry and won’t do anything on climate change. Health care sensitive swing voters will hear that our candidate is opposed to universal healthcare . . . Unbelievable claims — except that they aren’t unbelievable to everyone. In fact, the Trump campaign is already spending millions on these types of digital ads in core battleground states . . . We don’t have to match the Trump machine blow for blow, but we do have to unleash responses in such numbers and in so many mediums that his one huge presidential megaphone is matched not with volume . . . but with numbers.

It’s more than a little ironic that a passage preceding a section about fact-checking contains so many obvious fibs. (In Plouffe’s defense, at the time of writing — the book was drafted in the summer of 2019 — he didn’t know that Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee. Even if it passed in uncompromised form, Biden’s health care plan would leave plenty of people uninsured, and he’s as much as said he’d veto Medicare for All. He also came under well-deserved fire during the primaries for his ties to the fossil fuel industry . . . among other things.

In any case, even if one assumes the total and unvarnished righteousness of the Democratic cause, Plouffe’s blueprint for fighting right-wing narratives is well worn and leaves much to be desired:

You see something in your Facebook feed from one of your old college friends about a “study” demonstrating that if the Democrat is victorious, crime will rise 50 percent and rapes and murders from undocumented immigrants will triple. Take a minute to shake your head in frustration, sigh in sadness, but then respond calmly and by sharing content that shows the Democrat’s commitment to increasing funds for local enforcement; stats showing that immigrants commit fewer crimes than those native born; our candidate’s commitment to solving at long last the immigration challenge with comprehensive reform, including smart, humane, technology-based border security.

Later in the book, Plouffe even imagines one side of a hypothetical conversation with a conspiracy-theory-obsessed red-state uncle posting about the Democratic nominee and infanticide. I won’t bore you with another quotation, but the crux is that liberal partisans are supposed to politely fact-check such misinformation — ideally offering links from more conservative sources like the Wall Street Journal so that their Republican acquaintances and relatives will be outflanked by logic and forced to concede defeat.

Plouffe admits this may not always work, but it’s nevertheless telling that he devotes several key passages of the book to it. For as long as I can remember, Democratic thought leaders have obsessed over fact-checking and argued that challenging right-wing misinformation is the key to beating back Republican dominance. Minus a few time-specific references, in fact, Plouffe’s instructions could probably have been written at any time in the past twenty or thirty years.

It’s a telling recurrence, because it suggests that many liberals still believe Democrats lose elections because of bad epistemology rather than because of politics. This is, as far as I can discern, the basic formula underlying Plouffe’s thesis and many others like it: 1) The Right creates misinformation [Democrats eat children, climate change is fake, etc.]; 2) Said misinformation is disseminated through powerful outlets like Fox News; 3) People internalize bad facts and empirically false narratives; 4) Without sufficient pushback and fact-checking, Democrats lose. The facts support Democrats, or so this logic goes, ergo the absence of facts bolsters conservatism.

If some people find this story compelling, it’s probably because it contains a grain of truth. American conservatives have, on the whole, been better than their liberal rivals at creating powerful media enterprises, and outlets like Fox and Breitbart manifestly do spend plenty of time misinforming their audiences. And, despite facing an abundance of competition, Donald Trump probably lies more than anyone.

But conservatism is ultimately a political project, not a malign information system. Most people with hardened conservative beliefs won’t be swayed by an article from the Wall Street Journal or a Glenn Kessler column giving the birther conspiracy five Pinocchios — even when it clearly contradicts their stated view. A fact, by itself, is nothing until it becomes part of a larger narrative — and it’s these, by and large, that actually structure political identity. In this respect, the Right’s willingness to embrace populist storytelling matters a whole lot more than the obvious untruths so regularly put to work in its service. Which is all to say, if we’re actually serious about rolling back conservative dominance, fact-checking will never be a substitute for politics.