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What the Covington High School Incident Tells Us About America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On Jan. 19, a moment arrived that nobody anticipated and quickly became a national Rorschach test. The moment came when a group of students had an encounter of some sort with a Native American elder on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


Their encounter became a social media sensation. Despite nearly two hours of video footage and extensive media coverage, there is still no clear agreement as to what happened that day.

Seventy-four percent of liberal voters believe that the Covington High School students behaved inappropriately during that encounter. However, a national survey found that just 31 percent of conservative voters agree.

The positions are reversed when it comes to the national news media. Seventy-five percent of conservatives believe the national news media behaved inappropriately, while just 31 percent of liberals agree.

That's a fairly typical divide on the veracity of the media. Most liberals believe the national media reports facts after carefully examining them. Most conservatives laugh at that idea and believe reporters simply use random incidents to promote ideological agendas.

These results highlight a reality described in my latest book, "The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not." Science has shown that only 40 percent of what we see comes through our eyes. Sixty percent comes from what we expect to see. So when pictures and stories of the encounter on the National Mall began circulating, liberals and conservatives both saw what they wanted to see.


And, perhaps even more importantly, nobody changed their mind as new facts emerged. At, we polled on this encounter shortly after it took place. Then we asked the same questions nearly a week later. The results were essentially the same.

Ideological differences are found in every aspect of this issue. Liberals tend to believe the students initiated the encounter, while conservatives believe it was the Native American. We asked if the initial short video of the incident was deceptively edited and if the more complete video provided a significantly different understanding of the encounter. Most liberals said no; most conservatives said yes. Liberals are even more likely to follow the story than conservatives.

And those differences all come back to what people expected to see in the image of a white boy from a Catholic School who attended a March for Life event and was wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. On that basis alone, he was automatically deemed guilty by some and innocent by others.

Sadly, this is the state of American politics in the 21st century. Rather than reserving judgment until the facts are known, politically obsessed activists look only for symbols to see if someone is on their team or the other team. Once that's decided, nothing else matters. Additional information is then useful only if it helps make the case for their side.


The only good news is that most Americans aren't political activists and don't experience stories like the Covington High School incident as life-defining moments. Sixty-four percent discuss politics only occasionally (if at all). They detest politics-as-usual and are open to following someone who can offer a compelling, uplifting and unifying message. The question for America in 2020 may come down to whether anyone can offer such a message.

Scott Rasmussen is the publisher of He is the author of "The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not."

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