"Perception is reality" is a truism in most areas of human experience, but perhaps more so in politics than any other realm. Zealots on all sides know that if they can create an enduring, indelible image -- whether positive or negative -- in the minds of the populace, that perception will supersede any inconvenient facts that are more reflective of the actual situation.
Here are just a few wide-ranging examples from the past half-century:
Perception: The Tet Offensive was a major defeat for the U.S. in Vietnam
The Vietnam War was a conflict born of Cold War sensibilities and doctrines holding that the spread of communism anywhere in the world was an existential threat to the national security interests of the United States and therefore that threat should be stopped. Very generally speaking, that was the impetus for our taking the lead role in supporting South Vietnam resisting the aggression of Russia-backed North Vietnam. U.S. involvement started in the early 1960s under President Kennedy. Following Kennedy's death in 1963, President Johnson greatly expanded the scale of America's engagement, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops deployed. The war itself enjoyed reasonable public support since it appeared that we were making solid progress in weakening the opposing forces and diminishing the communist threat.
That impression of U.S. progress was shattered in January 1968 when 85,000 communist fighters launched a multi-pronged offensive against several South Vietnamese cities and strongholds. The attack -- which came to be known as the Tet Offensive, so named for the Vietnamese New Year holiday period -- came as a great surprise to American military leadership, who had previously thought the communist forces were incapable of mounting such an attack. In America, public opinion for the war turned sharply negative, since the perception was that the communists had scored a great victory and dealt a huge setback to our mission.
Reality: The truth is that after a very brief interlude of initial enemy success, American and South Vietnamese forces inflicted substantial casualties on the communist forces and quickly regained the initiative, taking back virtually all the territory that was briefly lost to the opposing side.
Nonetheless, the perception of a great defeat for America persisted, reinforced by the U.S. news media, who began saying that they'd been misled in the past by overoptimistic Government reports on the war's progress. Now, the "truth" was out for all to see: the U.S. Government couldn't be trusted, the communists had achieved stunning, unexpected success on the battlefield and the war in Vietnam was going to slog on interminably at great cost and with no realistic prospect for clear-cut victory. Anti-war protests, draft card burning and draft-dodging escapes to Canada became the norm. A fissure in American society materialized that many say has since led to countless debilitating intergenerational social conflicts, and that the country's view of the mainstream media and the government's honesty has been irrevocably damaged as a result.
Perception: Robert Bork was racist and misogynist, and that's why he was rejected for the Supreme Court
Robert Bork was a highly-respected scholar and judge who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987 by President Reagan to replace the retiring Lewis Powell. Powell was known as a moderate, a swing vote in closely-contested decisions. Although Bork's innate intelligence and basic legal qualifications were not in question, Democrats were aghast at the prospect of the conservative Bork replacing the moderate Powell and thus tilting the balance of the Court sharply to the right. Powell had voted in the majority of the 7-2 January 1973 decision that affirmed a woman's right to have an abortion. Should Roe v. Wade or any variant thereof come up again, Democrats were certain that Bork would vote against their interests.
The same day that Bork was nominated, Democratic senator Ted Kennedy of MA made a speech on the Senate floor that lives to this day as possibly the high-water mark for the most outrageously partisan, gratuitously insulting, completely divorced-from-reality personal hack job masquerading as a serious policy address ever given in the annals of Senate speeches. In words that accurately define forever his true colors of "Partisan advantage first, always and only," Kennedy said,
Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
Astonishing words coming from a supposed respected leader of the country.
Reality: Bork was highly qualified, but was never defended by the Republicans
In reality, Bork was nothing like Kennedy described. He was a more conservative judge than Powell, and no doubt would have taken a somewhat more originalist standpoint on many issues than Powel had taken, but that did not in any way diminish his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court.
The Republicans never did mount an effective rebuttal to Kennedy's unfounded attack. They never really defended Bork. This incident arguably began the modern era of Democratic mastery of the art of using the major media to their advantage, since Kennedy's speech was played again and again on TV and radio, without an effective or serious response by the Republicans, who just didn't seem to have any idea how to deal with it.
The reality of Robert Bork's intellectual and legal qualifications may have been one thing, but those qualifications were utterly and completely swamped by the popular perception of his unsuitability for the position brought about by Kennedy's deftly delivered character assassination on the Senate floor and Kennedy's instinctive understanding of how to leverage a liberal--leaning media to his advantage.
Perception: The rich don't pay their fair share of taxes
This issue is a staple calling card for Democrats, who continually imply that all wealthy entities -- Republicans, mainly -- duck, dodge and otherwise avoid their responsibility to pay the taxes they rightfully owe. Democrats are only too happy to put forth the idea that rich Republicans use all manner of shady, questionable tax loopholes to evade their tax obligations, thereby forcing the "average guy" (who doesn't have access to sophisticated, expensive tax advisors) to shoulder the burden of paying the majority of the nation's taxes. This overall sentiment is summed up perfectly by leading Democrats as they cite their favorite example, their proposed "Buffet Rule." Democrats claim that billionaire investor Warren Buffet pays a lower percentage in income taxes than his secretary, so there should be a "rule" that above some arbitrary income level, a so-called "rich" person must pay an arbitrarily-set high percentage of income tax -- above the percentage that a secretary would ever pay. That rule, say the Democrats, will ensure that the rich always pay their fair share, which as everyone knows they're not paying now. That's the perception.
Reality: The reality, of course, is that the rich are paying their fair share and more. Far from a disproportionate amount of tax burden falling on the low-to-middle income wage earners, the rich pay the vast majority of taxes in this country, "loopholes" and "accounting tricks" notwithstanding. here, The top 10% of wage earners pay over 70% of Federal income taxes. When the Bernie Sanders of the world say, "We've got to make sure the rich pay their fair share," that's just code-speak for raising taxes on the upper income earners to fund more Democratic vote-buying government handout programs. The reality, of course, is that Democrats are never in favor of raising taxes in order to buy more F-22s; they want to raise taxes on "the rich" in order to fund more social spending programs, which will influence votes in the Democrats' favor.
These are all completely different cases, but the common thread among them is that the facts of each circumstance are wildly at odds with the popular perception of them. In each situation, an erroneous, inaccurate version of reality was deliberately and fraudulently forced upon the public by partisan factions in order to shape popular opinion and manufacture support for a favored political position.
The exponential growth in the past decade of alternative news sources and social media beyond the traditional network TV news broadcasts and major big-city newspapers is a double-edged sword. While one can certainly ferret out more detailed and balanced information on any given topic by exercising some rigid intellectual discipline along with healthy doses of skepticism and common sense, there is an even greater rise in the easy availability of rumor-, innuendo- and agenda-driven "news." This makes the danger greater than ever that inaccurate perception-based stories will become popularly accepted as authentic, while the reality of the situation -- either less interesting or not as convenient a fit into a pre-determined narrative -- fades unceremoniously into the background.