America’s Lying Season


October, 2015

It’s the lying season in American politics.

Lies fall from politicians lips like leaves fall from the trees in autumn. Most of the heaviest lying is taking place on the national level, at the moment particularly within the Republican Party (more on that below). But you can find lying at almost every level of political office.

Here in Virginia, where I currently live, we have an election this week. It’s not a big election. No governors nor senators nor a president being elected. Just elections for the state house and senate, local sheriff, the other odd office. But lying is on full display. Candidates lie about the policies they would enact. They creatively ‘embellish’ past achievements. And they lie about, and twist, the things their opponents have said and done. And often these are not little lies, but great big whoppers, sometimes made of whole cloth.

And when lying doesn’t work, fear is the fall-back strategy.

“Be afraid, be very afraid of electing my opponent because his or her election means your pocketbook, your religion, your guns, your children’s school, your very lives, might be in danger.”

Truth is more elusive than Susquatch and just as well hidden. And like Susquatch, the question is, does it really exist?

It certainly doesn’t among the men and women running for their parties’ respective presidential nominations. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are no saints when it comes to truth telling, they are novices compared to the Republican candidates.

You would need a calculator to keep track of the lies and fabrications spun out like cotton candy during this party’s recent presidential debates. Donald Trump, for instance, is a veritable Grand Master of Outrageous Statements. And Dr. Ben Carson, who is just as bad as Trump at inventing scenarios but lacks his over-the-top craziness, and so is taken more “seriously” by observers, just plain lies.

Even second-tier candidates know the game. Candidates like Carly Fiorina lie about seeing controversial videos, and Jeb Bush lies about what his brother did in the war on terror. They refuse to admit that they are wrong, even when confronted with the facts, because admitting you lied is the worst of all possible political sins.

But Trump and Carson are too outrageous, each in their own way, to be ultimately victorious. And candidates like Fiorina and Bush are too irrelevant to worry about.

It’s the quiet lies and twisted truths of Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz that are more worrisome. Some of their policy statements defy mathematical and scientific logic, but in the lying season you are not judged on your truthfulness, but on how well you can tell the lie and your ability to maintain the lie.

And when, now and then, the media plucks up enough courage to actually say, “Hey, that’s kinda B.S.”, the cries of bias ring out like church bells on Christmas Day. In the GOP, the cries are almost always of liberal media bias, while in the Democratic Party, the cries tend to be more focused on the individual journalist being “unfair,” rather than the entire group.

After a while, you get tired of the people who are supposed to represent us treating democracy like shit.

Then again, maybe they represent us better than we would like to admit.

It’s no blazing insight to say that politicians lie in order to get elected, and keep lying so that they can remain elected. Politicians have been doing it forever.

What’s different is our willingness to accept these lies. Thanks to things like polls, focus groups, surveys, social media, etc., politicians know exactly which types of lies will work with what group of people and in what area. They tailor their lies so that confirmation bias becomes their greatest political asset. (Trump says all Mexicans are dangerous and bad, although stats show that whites have a far greater incarceration rate. Truth doesn’t matter, because these lies play to the confirmation bias of the GOP’s racist base, for whom the lie was told in the first place.)

Mendacity has become the political standard and truth-telling is seen as stupid and a sign of weakness. But perhaps even worse is that ‘truth’ has also taken on a new meaning. It is no longer absolute, but is now only relevant to particular groups in particular ways. In a very post-modern sense, truth is what a politician tells you is true, regardless if it is or not.

And this, for me personally, is the great danger. Lies have become the ‘truth’ for too many people. Genuine truth creates too many problems: it asks us to change, to be different, to move out of our comfort zone in order to create a better democracy. Believing lies are true lets us off the hook. Our democracy shrinks and becomes sterile, but we remain ‘safe.’ And this is particularly true in Western nations in the past decade.

As I said above, it is the lying season in American politics. I’m afraid it’s become the only season we have left.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.





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