Politics, Lying, and the Death of Facts

We are living in interesting times. We are living in a time when elected officials can make the most outlandish completely untrue statements and bear little or no repercussions. We are witnessing the death of facts in our public discourse.

A U.S Congressman can falsely claim that 80 Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist party.

A U.S. Senator can assert that over 90% of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to funding abortions, when it’s actually closer to 3%. That was bad enough. The topper was when one of the senator’s staffers defended him by explaining that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement”!

Or how about when at-the-time contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain, accused the Obama administration as being behind the Occupy Wall Street protests, but then added: “I don’t have facts to back this up.”

President Obama has often characterized by his critics as a “Socialist” — despite the fact that no actual Socialists (or anyone who is the least bit rational in assessing Obama’s positions) believe he is anywhere close to one.

The problem isn’t merely that people in authority continue to make such obviously false statements. The bigger problem is that they get away with it. By this I mean they receive little or no condemnation — other than by those of the opposing party, who are dismissed as “politically motivated.” The lying politicians don’t get booted out of office. To the contrary, their lies often improve their re-election odds, by appealing to their party’s “extreme base.”

Why do they do this? Because no matter how ridiculous the claim, a significant portion of the public winds up believing it. For example, at least in several Southern states, a majority of Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim. Many still doubt that he was born in the United States. And don’t even get me started on the public’s willingness to embrace the false attacks on evolution and climate change.

In today’s political landscape, “facts” are defined as something that confirms your pre-existing bias. Anything else is dismissed as “just someone’s wrong opinion.” There is no longer an agreed upon set of facts whose interpretation is debated. Each side in a debate now has their own set of “facts” — with little attention being paid to how true they are.

Mainstream media are of little help in sorting this out. They tend to fall in one of two camps. On the one hand, you have organizations such as Fox News and MSNBC that take such a unilateral and extreme view that they don’t even offer a pretense of being unbiased. On the other side, you have most of the rest of the media. They refuse to even hint that truth may reside more with one side of a controversy than another, lest they be accused of being biased.


I am reminded of the “swiftboating” of John Kerry in 2004. Concerned about the political advantage of Kerry’s status as a Vietnam War hero, Republicans decided that the best defense was a good offense. So they created the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT). According to Wikipedia: “SBVT asserted that Kerry was ‘unfit to serve’ as President based upon his alleged ‘willful distortion of the conduct’ of American servicemen during that war, and his alleged ‘withholding and/or distortion of material facts’ as to his own conduct during that war.”

According to a Times survey “about one-third of viewers believed there was at least ‘some truth’ to the allegations.” The claims, in fact, were largely if not entirely untrue. Again, as noted in Wikipedia, “The first SBVT ad was contradicted by the statements of several other veterans who observed the incidents, by the Navy’s official records, and, in some instances, by the contemporaneous statements of SBVT members themselves.” ABC News’s The Note opined, “the Swift Boat ad and their primary charges about Kerry’s medals are personal, negative, extremely suspect, or false.” [See also this snopes.com page.]

The truth didn’t matter. The SBVT ads created enough doubt to swing a significant number of voters. Some believe it was sufficient to have altered the outcome of the election.

One result of all of this is that the word swiftboating became a verb, used to describe the deliberate use of a “harsh, unfair or untrue political attack” in order to discredit an opponent. In other words, a smear campaign.

Sadly, with the 2012 presidential campaign moving into high gear, we can expect to see sort of thing happening again — especially from Republicans who have been very effective at drawing from this well. I expect this season to set new records in negative attacks and false claims. Why? Because they work. And with the new super PACs, there is more money and opportunity to use these attacks than ever before. We’ve already seen this in action, as noted in today’s San Francisco Chronicle: “The super PAC supporting Romney outspent the super PACs supporting Gingrich and Santorum by 20 to 1 over that period, and much of the pro-Romney super PAC trafficked in ‘deceptive’ statements, the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center found.”

What can politicians do?

One of the most difficult decisions a political campaign faces is what to do when attacked by false statements. They have several choices, none of them ideal (that’s what make these attacks so effective).

• Ignore the attacks. Take the high road. Avoid responding to the attacks on the grounds that any response only lends credibility to the accusations. Data show that repeating a lie can increase its perceived veracity, even if you repeat a lie only to deny it. Over time, many people will recall the lie more than your denial. Even worse, your reply can alert people to an attack that they did not know about before.

This all sounds nice. But the other side is that ignoring an attack lets your opponent control the message. If all the public hears is what your opponent is saying, you lose the debate by default. If public interest in a story dies quickly, you might get away with ignoring it. Otherwise, you have to rebut the attack. And soon. The longer you wait, the more you get hurt.

• Deny the attacks. Deny the truth of the attacks. Do it often, as long as it remains a hot topic. And it isn’t enough to make a simple denial. That’s too weak. You you have to assert your denial vigorously and indignantly. You are “appalled” that such false accusations could even be asserted.

The problem here is that this lends itself to a “he said, she said” situation — where people may wind up unsure who to believe. It helps if you have clear evidence to back up your claim, but don’t get bogged down in a long detailed intellectual presentation. Keep things brief and simple. Sadly, emotional reactions often play a bigger role in these conflicts than evidence.

• Accuse the opposition. Go beyond denial. Accuse your attackers for being unconscionable liars. If possible, show how your opponents have repeatedly lied, not only in this case but in many other situations. The idea is to shift the focus from your opponents’ false claims to your opponents’ ethics, ideally putting them on the defensive.

This can be effective. But there is a risk that your “negative” ratings with the public will go up as a result, even if you take your opponents with you. You can’t spend all your time on accusations. You need to shift back to a positive message at some point.

• Attack the opposition. Fight fire with fire. Instead of responding to your opponents’ false claims, find something even worse about your opponents actions and attack them with it. Again, this can take you off the hot seat and force your opponent to defend against your attacks.

The risk here is that you may be tempted to make dubious attacks, ones that may not be entirely true. If so, you wind up stooping to your opponents’ level. Sometimes this may seem unavoidable (“it’s how hardball politics is played these days; everyone does it”). And, as I’ve said, it can be successful. However, it may lead to the public throwing up their hands and shouting “a pox on both your houses.”

In the end, a politician will likely be required to employ some combination of all of these methods. Exactly what to do will depend upon the specifics of the opponents’ attack, how much media attention it is generating, and what arrows you have in your own quiver to attack back.

What can citizens do?

For starters, don’t limit yourself to soundbites and attack ads for determining how you will vote. Assume these are often misleading at best, and untrue at worst.

Go to the web and do some checking. Two great places to start are FactCheck and PolitoFact.

Check on the record of all candidates you support. If you find that their record for honesty is poor, write them and let them know you are disappointed. Tell them that if they keep on making blatantly false statements, they will lose your support. And mean it.

I know. It’s a bit naive to think this can be very effective. In the end, most people will not be willing to change their vote based on a candidate’s honesty — especially when nearly all candidates are dishonest to some extent. A Tea Party member would never vote for a Democrat, even if he was convinced that the Republican candidate was a chronic liar and the Democratic opponent was a beacon of truth (assuming the member could ever be convinced that such was the case). But there are independents, and even some partisans, out there who might really shift their vote based on such considerations. At least I hope so. In the end, the only way to stop this assault on truth is if politicians come to believe it will not help them get elected.

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