When a Lie Becomes an Insult
We all tell lies. Thus, we aren't surprised or offended when politicians, especially those campaigning for office, tell lies. We expect it. Of course, we should expect more from our candidates, but that is another topic. I do want to look at the types of lies that candidates tell. What do those lies tell us about the candidate? What do they tell us about our democratic process?
First, of course, is the promise. How many times have we heard a candidate promise to do something? Unfortunately, it appears as if many times that promise is completely hollow and the candidate has no intent to follow through. That lie may help us evaluate the candidate, but ultimately, the candidate will pay for the lie in the next election. Of a slightly different character is the promise that the candidate would like to fulfill but which the candidate knows full well is not within the scope of the office for which the candidate is running and therefore is a promise that will also go unfulfilled. Again, this lie may tell us something about the candidate's position and probably won't come back to bite the candidate later because the candidate can blame others or external forces for the failure to follow through.
We also have the exaggeration. We all know that candidates exaggerate their own successes and their opponent's failures. It is part of the competitive process, I suppose (but query whether it should be). We all know to take with a grain of salt what our candidates tell us they've done or what their opponent has done (or not done). But, usually these exaggerations (especially when building up the candidate's own record) are based, primarily, in a nugget of truth. And the candidate knows that if the exaggeration is too bold (especially when criticising the opponent) it will be seized on and dissected, often to the gain of the opponent. Thus, if the exaggeration is outrageous enough, it drops out of the campaign rhetoric or, if it is innocuous, its use continues but it doesn't have much meaning.
Of course linked to the exaggeration is the generic lie where a candidate says, for example, "I voted for X" or "I supported Y" when, in fact, the opposite is true. Usually, these generic lies are quickly seized upon by the opponent and the issuer of the lie either issues a retraction ("I meant to say...") or qualifies the lie ("I supported X in the committee hearing before voting against it because of extra measures that were attached..."). Sometimes, these lies have "legs" but usually, the qualification or retraction, rather than the initial statement, becomes the issue. And, usually, the subject of the lie is an issue of importance to voters (did the candidate vote for or against the tax cut, for example). While the lie itself may be bad, at least the response and resulting discussion usually lead to a discussion of actual issues (even if only tangentially).
Unfortunately, two new types of lies seem to have entered the political process. (OK, I'll admit that they've both probably been around as long as elections have, but they seem to be becoming more prominent recently.) The first is the lie of destruction. That lie puts out disinformation about the opponent that has nothing to do with the issues in the election; rather, the lie attacks the opponent's character or fitness to serve. This year, we've seen lies about Sen. Obama's religion and lies about Sen. McCain's involvement in the fire aboard the USS Forrestal. We've seen lies about Sen. Obama's citizenship and lies about Sen. McCain cooperating with the enemy while a POW. These sorts of lies are very damaging to the candidates, and, more importantly, they are very damaging to our very electoral process (would you want to run for office knowing the kinds of things that might be said about you and your family?). Between mass communications and the Internet, these lies can spread faster than they can be rebutted; by the time a rebuttal can be issued, the lie has taken on a life of its own and, to many people, become "true". So, if people are basing their electoral decision on the basis of lies about a candidate's character and background, those electoral decisions will, almost by definition be flawed and the issues on which the election should turn are relegated to a position of lesser importance. This trend has me gravely concerned. If people don't want to vote for Sen. Obama because they don't like his economic policies, fine (although I'd like to talk to them...); but if they don't want to vote for him because "he's a Muslim" then we have a problem. If people don't want to vote for Sen. McCain because he opposes a woman's right to choose, fine; but if they don't want to vote for him because they think he is responsible for the deaths of 134 sailors on the USS Forrestal then we have a problem. And given the prominence of chain emails and websites with just these sorts of allegations, I think that we do have a problem.
And now we have yet another new type of lie: The sound byte lie that sounds so good that it is repeated even after it has been proved false. The case in point is, of course, Gov. Palin's repeated claim that she told Congress "thanks but no thanks" to the Bridge to Nowhere. She made this claim when Sen. McCain first announced her as his running mate. It was a great sound byte and was repeated over and over on the evening news. Very quickly, however, the veracity of the statement was called into question. The timeline of funding for the bridge and Gov. Palin's own past statements demonstrated that she had not told Congress "thanks but no thanks" (after all, Congress stopped funding for the bridge before Gov. Palin was elected) but only killed the project (to be built with Alaskan funds) when Congress refused to allocate more money to Alaska (in fact, she noted that Congress didn't seem interested in giving Alaska more money for the project). She supported the bridge during her campain and for the first year or so of her administration; there is even a picture of her wearing a "Nowhere Alaska" shirt. But here is where this lie differs from others. Ordinarily, when caught in a lie of this sort, a candidate would explain away the position (it's a matter of nuanced understanding...) and the lie would vanish from the stump speech. But not in this case. Instead, Gov. Palin repeated the line in her acceptance speech and has continued to repeat the line day after day in stump speeches across the country even as more and more news media report on the fact that the statement is not true. Of course, the worst part of this lie is that each time she utters it, she is met with thunderous applause. And now, the McCain campaign has even made this lie a part of a campaign ad. Whether she did or did not support the bridge isn't even the issue; rather, the issue is her support or opposition to earmarks (recall that she hired a lobbyist for the town of Wasilla to get earmarks and, as Governor, asked Congress for more money). But she uses the lie to bolster her credentials.
What does it tell us about a candidate who will repeat, over and over, a statement of fact that has been proven to be a lie? To me, it says that the candidate really doesn't care about the truth. That's obvious. But it also says that the candidate is so confident in the appeal of her personal story that the issues won't matter to voters. It tells me that she doesn't think voters care about the truth or will do enough to learn the truth (or won't believe the truth because it comes from the "liberal media"). It tells me that she doesn't have any respect for the democratic process or for democracy as a concept or method of governance; after all, if the public can't trust a candidate to tell the truth (or at least a close approximation to the truth), then how is the public supposed to make a determination of who to vote for? Repeating the lie is cynical and insulting. And, the fact that the McCain campaign has now incorporated that lie into a campaign ad tells me that the cynicism of the selection of Gov. Palin apparently runs much deeper...
And what does the repetition of the lie and the thunderous approval it receives tell us about the voting electorate? It tells us that Gov. Palin just may be correct in her cynical belief that the American electorate is too stupid to analyze issues and will, instead, just vote for the person that they'd rather have over for a mooseburger and a beer. And that is a very, very worrying prospect indeed.