What’s the answer to the following simple math problem?
4 + 6 = ?
Take your time. It’s not a trick question, by the way. Just a straightforward addition problem.
All set? Good. The answer, of course, is 10.
Did you get that answer? Yes, you did. Nearly every American child learns simple addition beginning in first grade. Maybe you memorized addition tables, or maybe you learned it in story problem form:
Mary has four cats. If Mary adds six more cats to her family, how many cats will Mary have?
Yes, Mary will have ten cats. (Mary is also well on her way to being a crazy cat lady, but that’s another issue.)
Very few people will contest this fact. Oh, you’ll run into the occasional philosopher or theoretical mathematician who will state that “the cats don’t exist at all” or “the number of cats approaches 10 but never actually becomes 10,” or you have an older version of Excel that somehow comes up with 9.999999999999 cats as the answer. In the real, boring, everyday world people actually live in, there are now ten cats. This is known as a fact.
A fact is something that’s empirically true. Through observation or experience, we can know that 4 plus 6 equals 10. We can observe Mary’s home, see the four cats she had previously, watch her crate in six more, and then count them to prove that there are now ten cats.
In politics, facts are more nebulous. That’s not to say that there isn’t something empirically true at the root; for example, Joe Biden got over 81 million votes for president in 2020 while Donald Trump got over 74 million. Using our first-grade subtraction skills, we can determine that Biden got about 7 million votes more than Trump. We don’t elect presidents based on the overall popular vote, of course, but it does indicate that Biden was more popular than Trump among all voters. This is a fact.
Unless you don’t believe it. Despite dozens of court challenges by the Trump campaign, all but one of which has resulted in a defeat for them, we’re still hearing rhetoric about “fraud,” “dead people voting,” “ballots being counted multiple times,” and so on. Most of the leaders of this line of argument know what they’re claiming isn’t true, but the empirical facts in this case are very inconvenient for them. What they want is a country where we can ignore election facts and continue to rule simply because they think they should. That is not democracy, it is autocracy, and that is also a fact.
As we continue to navigate through these treacherous waters over the next two weeks and into the first months of the Biden presidency, here are a few definitions (another type of facts) that are understood differently depending on your political ambitions and needs (actual definitions are from the New Oxford American Dictionary). Keep in mind that the ability to redefine words isn’t limited to Trump supporters; politicians of every party and stripe are fully capable of ignoring facts when it suits them:
Fraud (n.) Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.
Alternate political definition: Everything my opponent does that isn’t completely in line with my political needs.
Legal (adj.) Recognized by common or statutory law.
Vote (n.) A formal indication of a choice between two or more candidates or courses of action, expressed typically through a ballot or a show of hands or by voice.
Alternate political definition of “legal votes”: All votes for the candidate I support; any votes for anyone else are therefore “illegal.”
American (n.) A native or citizen of the United States.
Alternate political definition: A native (and usually not a naturalized citizen) of the United States who agrees with my political point-of-view, i.e. “The American People support what we’re doing here” or “We need to do this for The American People.” May also include sub-definitions that specify racial, ethnic, gender, sexual preference, or other individual traits that also are similar to the person using the alternative political definition.
I could go on. There are many other words that have been thrown around since the election that have actual definitions but seem to have a different meaning depending on who’s saying them: “allegations,” “preponderance,” “patriot,” “socialism,” and “stolen.”
I’m not sure how we get back to a place where we can start to agree on what words mean and that facts are, well, facts. It has to start with us rejecting the appeasement of those who refuse to acknowledge reality and who commit crimes against our country in the service of falsehoods. If we’re unwilling to hold those people accountable for their lies and deceit, there’s no chance we can return to a time when we can agree that Mary, in fact, has ten cats.