But What About the Truth?

Last week, Sean Hannity invited his audience to vote if they thought the Times Square bomber acted alone or with the Taliban or with Al Qaeda.  What an interesting way to decide.

No doubt, Hannity clearly understood that such a “vote” could not actually decide the truth.  The public verdict could not send anyone to jail. On the other hand, calling it a “vote” suggests a significant step beyond opinion.  A verdict was to be reached.

Elections confer legitimacy to opinion.   On American Idol, someone wins and someone loses.  In a jury trial, the defendant ends up being sentenced.  Something has been decided, agreed upon, set in place.  So what is going on here?

Is it just a kind of mob flattery?  The audience is asked to believe in its own wisdom or insight, and, even though it is unlikely that many voters in the audience could make a clear cut distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that would not prevent them from being sure which was worse.  And, in fact, the winner announced at the program’s end was Al Qaeda.  (The Attorney General last week said it was probably the Taliban.)

But also, as in vigilante justice, a vote implies that the usual authorities are not to be trusted.  Either they don’t care enough, allowing themselves to be distracted by a sentimental attachment to “ due process” or “civil liberties,” or they are corrupt.  What ever you might think about the crowd, at least they had nothing to gain from expressing their honest opinion.

So this is yet another sign of our growing distrust of government.  Hannity is implying that the audience knows better than the FBI, or is more trustworthy than those who are trained to investigate crime or guard national security.

The distinction between a straw poll and a “vote” may not seem so great on the surface. But what we don’t know we know about the difference says a lot about our endangered democracy.