The terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become part of American political discourse since the election of President Donald J. Trump.
But disinformation has been a constant force in American history, according to a new book by Eric Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters.
For Cheyfitz, disinformation is not part of a conscious political agenda for either Democratic or Republican administrations. Instead, it stems from the disconnect between the concept of American exceptionalism, with its promise of equal opportunity, and the inability of ordinary citizens to achieve the American dream of a middle-class lifestyle.
As Cheyfitz argues in his book, “The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States,” the historical force of disinformation began to intensify in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan’s election triggered a continuing slide into economic inequality, ultimately resulting in Trump’s election.
“Trump is the logical result of the last 40 years,” says Cheyfitz. “That is because if we did not have this massive income inequality, and the accompanying sense of radical social instability, Trump would not have had the votes. Trump appealed to people who felt on the edge of disaster.”
American exceptionalism, Cheyfitz argues, “no longer has the ideological power to rationalize the national agenda” because of the economic facts relating to the growing income inequality in the United States.
While the federal government defines the poverty level as an annual income of $24,600 for a family of four, Cheyfitz notes that the Economic Policy Institute proposes a more accurate measurement of poverty nearly twice that level. The institute sets “the line of material deprivation” at twice the poverty line, and half of Americans are living close to or below that income level, Cheyfitz says.
“Most people are barely affording the basics,” he says. “They can’t afford to send their kids to college; they can’t afford to retire. They’re living at the edge. They can put some food on the table and perhaps pay their bills, but they cannot afford the things that have long been considered part of the middle-class lifestyle.”
With their focus on military spending and refusal to address income inequality, both political parties have a hallucinatory vision of the American dream, and significant differences between them have collapsed, Cheyfitz says.
“The two-party system has become in fact a one-party state, a shadow play of corporate interests in which what appears to be the extreme opposition of Democrats and Republicans – whatever the former party advocates, the latter opposes – amounts ironically to a collaboration that insures the continuation of the corporate status quo,” Cheyfitz writes.
While the presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders offered some hope of dealing with income inequality, Cheyfitz says Sanders did not call for a serious reduction in military spending and ultimately bought into the status quo when he endorsed Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ nominee for president.
The only way to reclaim the fundamental principles of American democracy is to “enter a realm beyond the limit of capitalism’s imagination,” he said. One model is that of indigenous theory, says Cheyfitz, a scholar of Native American literature and federal Indian law. In his book, Cheyfitz refers to a pamphlet written by the social scientist Thomas Fatheuer that proposes an indigenous idea of the “good life,” which, in contrast to the American dream, seeks a state of equilibrium and not accumulation and growth as its goal.
“I think we are in a position where we need a revolution in thinking leading to radical policy change,” Cheyfitz says. “We need people to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t working and I’m not going to be part of it anymore.’”
Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.