Social Researchers, Right-Wing Demagogues, and the "Blank Space" in American Democracy

Article excerpt

On April 8, 2011, less than a fortnight ago as I write, minority whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) announced on the Senate floor that "if you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood. And that's well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" (Collins, 2011). Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards quickly countered that the real figure is actually 3% (Bassett, 2011). Later that day, Kyl's press secretary, Ryan Patmintra, reported to CNN that the 90% figure "was not intended to be a factual statement" (Nowicki, 2011). PolitiFact (2011b), a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan Web site dedicated to evaluating the truthfulness of political assertions, concluded that Kyl's statement greatly exaggerated Planned Parenthoods involvement in providing abortions. Kyl eventually admitted to misrepresenting an estimate he had taken from a report published by the Chiaroscuro Foundation (2011), a nonprofit, pro-life group (Nowicki, 2011).

Commenting on the Kyl debacle, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts (2011) concluded that his review of 100 "pants on fire" political statements (that is, assertions that are untrue and that make ridiculous claims) evaluated on PolitiFact indicated that

   when it comes to serial lying, to the biggest,
   most brazen, most audacious lies, the hes repeated
   ad nauseam until people mistake them for
   the truth, when it comes to the most absolute
   contempt for the facts and for the necessity of
   honest debate, it is not even close. Conservatives
   have no equal.

Lies, distortions, and calumny seem to permeate contemporary political discourse, from Sarah Palin's allegation that President Obama's health care bill would institute "death panels" for elderly people to Rush Limbaugh's (2009) bizarre contention that Obama was seeking to mandate circumcision. De spite the imbecilic quality of the conspiracy-theory rants of right-wing celebrities like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck that currently suffuse the air waves, right-wing demagogues are influential. Polls indicate that 18% to 24% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and his repeated denials (Holan, 2010). Donald Trump, the well-known real estate entrepreneur, is currently leading the pack of potential Republican presidential nominees, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he has joined forces with the "birther" movement and publically questioned the president's citizenship (PolitiFact, 2011a).

Most social researchers are surely troubled, if not appalled, by the mean and misleading nature of contemporary popular political discourse. A majority, perhaps, regards the rampant mendacity of public figures as an exigent, even existential threat to American democracy. Yet social researchers seem rarely to enter the political fray in a meaningful, decisive manner, despite the light that they could shed on pressing social problems. We should ponder the reasons for our current disengagement from the political process and then do something about it--particularly given that the Internet and the utilities it has spawned, like Facebook and Twitter, now provide propagandists and other purveyors of political misinformation with the most powerful tools for their purposes the world has ever known.

Perhaps the most contemptible and potentially dangerous of recent politically motivated assaults on the truth are Glenn Beck's diatribes against political scientist, sociologist, and former Columbia University School of Social Work faculty member Frances Fox Piven. Beck has launched literally dozens of ad hominem attacks on Piven on his radio and TV programs and his Web site, the Blaze (http://www.theblaze.com).

Beck initially focused on Piven's landmark article "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," which she coauthored with her husband, Richard Cloward (Cloward & Piven, 1966). Therein, the authors presented what has become known as the Cloward-Piven strategy (n. …