Critical thinking: A needed skill in political discourse

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” said Newt Gingrich in an interview with CNN during the Republican National Convention.

In just one sentence, Gingrich embodied the biggest problem facing American politics today. It is not either party, the two-party system, Social Security, education or federalism. The biggest problem the United States faces in today’s political discourse is the rejection of fact and its substitution with fiction.

The rise of Donald Trump exemplifies this better than any other case. Trump began his campaign partly on the premise that Mexican-American immigrants cause an inordinate amount of crime.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Trump said in his campaign announcement on June 16, 2015. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

While Trump’s rhetoric is striking, it is far from reality. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that 1.6 percent of 18- to 39-year old male immigrants were incarcerated. That figure rises to 3.3 percent for native-born males in the same age range. In 2013, sex crimes accounted for just 1.6 percent of crimes committed by immigrants.

Clearly, Trump’s assertion that Mexican-Americans are almost universally criminals is founded in no way on reality.

Yet perhaps more egregiously, Trump’s assertion is based on another fiction that undocumented Mexican immigrants comprise any significant population of the U.S. A Sept. 20, 2016, Pew Research Center study found that while this group comprised over half of the number of undocumented immigrants in 2014, undocumented immigrants account for just 3.5 percent of the country’s population.

The same study found that the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants has actually been declining since 2009.

Perhaps Trump’s calls for immigration reform would be better served by looking at Canadian immigrants. A Jan. 16, 2016, study by the Department of Homeland Security found that Canadian-Americans are the most likely group of immigrants to illegally overstay their visas.

But that reality, rather than Trump’s fiction, would not be met with the xenophobic zeal of many of his supporters.

This rejection of reality, however, is not a crime that only one side of the political spectrum commits.

Liberals who are in favor of gun control often claim that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written at a time when muskets were the only weapon that citizens could reasonably own.

Those who share that political ideology, however, generally supported the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Riley v. California, which found that the Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure applies to cell phones as well.

Cell phones did not exist in 1791.

As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noted, the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Constitution is “not unlimited.” While there may be legitimate arguments to be made in support of gun control, the type of firearms around during the ratification of the Bill of Rights is not one of them.

The backbone of any strong democracy is the education of its electorate. While the U.S. fails to rank first in any educational metric, the American education system is capable enough to support a populace that weighs facts over emotions and truth over fiction.

Our unwillingness to separate fact from fabrication despite our ability to do so undermines American democracy and leads us down a dangerous path of despotism. But we can—and should—change that.