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I’m writing this with the perspective of having seen both the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate. I’d like to comment on the veracity of both.
I hope that anyone who reads this post will watch tomorrow night’s debate through a pretty straightforward lens. My main criterion is very simple: Support the candidate who tells you the truth. I know, it seems like a tall order. It shouldn’t, though. If both major party candidates lie tomorrow night, both should be admonished. While the candidates—and every politician—is ultimately responsible for what he or she says, the environment should not exist in which certain behavior (e.g., lying) is not only expected, but encouraged.
For some time, there has been a not so tacit acceptance that politicians lie. For at least as long as there have been politicians, the cynical belief that you can’t trust someone who seeks to attain and maintain power has been stubbornly cemented into the collective consciousness. To an extent, this ethic may be true. It is a logical extension of human nature, and has certainly been borne out by empirical observation.
The idea that a politician can lie to get ahead, that a person can—and should—lie to the very people he or she hopes to serve is not ok.
It is not the world of 1984. There is no (official) Ministry of Truth, passing off falsehoods as fact. Politicians and members of the media are responsible for disseminating true statements, not self-serving lies.
On October 4, Dana Milbank, widely read columnist for The Washington Post, said something shocking on Martin Bashir’s show on MSNBC. Bashir asked Milbank to explain an article he had written, defending Romney’s debate performance. Milbank ended up admitting that, yes, Romney did lie on countless occasions during the debate. He had no reason to believe that these lies were not deliberate deceptions intended to win the debate. Essentially, facts be damned. When pressed further by Bashir on the major ethical issues of running for the highest office in the country, and how such action certainly undercuts legitimacy, Milbank said that Obama “let him lie”, and that that’s how you play the game. Milbank said that after he watched over 20 Republican primary debates, he didn’t see how “you would expect anything different”. Milbank maintained that lying is fine and, in Romney’s case was an advantageous move. He thinks Romney owes the country nothing, and basically said that the ball is in Obama’s court to disprove Romney’s lies. Both Bashir and Milbank agreed on Romney’s “litany of lies”. Milbank saw no problem with these lies. Not only was he complicit in this disgusting system; he praised Romney in both a widely circulated newspaper editorial and on national television.
People should be very upset. The onus, however, should not be on every person to fact check every statement. Everyone should be informed, and people like me do fact check political statements, but no one should have to expect that lies are the default position. What are journalists for? Where is the media? Oh, right, certain members—the Dana Milbanks of the media—are not doing their jobs. I don’t care if this was an opinion piece. Dana Milbank should be ashamed for encouraging such behavior, and then for doubling down on his encouragement. Like Mitt Romney, “no apologies”, it seems.
Paul Ryan also lied in his debate with Joe Biden. Ryan has a habit of disavowing the truth. The moniker “Lyin’ Ryan” didn’t come from nowhere.
Yes, I’ve been picking on Romney and Ryan. I’m putting them under the microscope because they represent very vivid and pretty indisputable examples. This is not a purely partisan issue, and I don’t seek to be discredited by acting as if it is. Lying, no matter what person, party, or persuasion, is not acceptable. It is not how you win debates, and it shouldn’t be how you win votes.
Aren’t the candidates supposed to love and laud “the American people”? To politicians everywhere: what a tremendous slap in the face to the citizens you expect to vote for you. You’re supposed to be a public servant.
To be completely clear about why such lying is problematic at best and morally bankrupt at worst, I will list five reasons why the electorate should not passively accept those who seek to lead us deceiving us.
1. An “anything goes” downward spiral: The first excuse given by anyone seeking to apologize for a politician’s lies are “but the other side does it!”, as if this excuse somehow absolves their candidate of responsibility for wrongdoing. If evasive tactics haven’t worked (further compounding the lie into an often unmanageable, tangled web of more and more lies), and the candidate is stuck with “blueberry pie on [his or her] face”, as Al Sharpton likes to say, then the act of lying is used as a defense mechanism. We, the voters, are reminded that our candidate has to “fight back” against the barrage of lies being told about him or her by his or her opponent. We are to believe that every race is an arms race and that each campaign degenerates into a prisoner’s dilemma. Of course, it would be nice if the candidates each just highlighted their own records and didn’t have to lie, but unfortunately, once the “other side” does it, “our side” has no choice. We are made to believe that the only thing that can neutralize lying is more lying, whether or not the “other side” even lied in the first place. There is so much deliberate fabrication and spin, especially by outside groups (yes, I’m calling you out, Frank Luntz and Karl Rove), that it seems chaos is created intentionally to justify further lying. At least in the Cold War, the idea of mutually assured destruction prevented each side from nuking the other because everyone realized it was in their best interest not to bring us all down. Politicians and their enablers would do well to learn a lesson from history.
2. The No Responsibility Ethic: If a politician is encouraged to lie (and takes the bait), in a debate, let’s say, then we can be assured that person has little in the way of scruples. This person is unlikely to take responsibility for lying, or for any of the consequences of his or her misinformation or disinformation. The candidate has a reputation to uphold! How dare you question his or her character? Do you really want someone in office, representing you, who does not take responsibility for his or her actions? The rest of the country is constantly reminded of the fact that we are supposed to take “responsibility for our lives” (here’s looking at you, Mitt Romney; yet, it’s more than alright for Romney to lie?)—I sense a disconnect here.
3. Unethical Conduct and the Trust Factor: This is very clear cut. Lying is unethical. Most people would agree on this point. Ask any focus group or perform any poll, and I can almost guarantee you that when presented with the idea of outright lying, this practice would be nearly universally panned by almost any panel. This idea cuts at the heart of our instinctive drive to trust others who have proven they are trustworthy. If someone will lie to you, how can you trust him or her? And should you trust him or her? Pick any point in human history. One person’s lie could have led to an early human version of you being eaten by a wild animal, or a seventeenth century version of you being burned at the stake. Trust is crucial to survival. Trust is earned and can be broken. Betrayal is devastating, even if it doesn’t result in one’s immediate demise. That is why we put such a premium on it. If someone betrays you, especially repeatedly, how can you trust this person?
4. Abuse of Power and a Sense of Elite Entitlement: We hear a lot about the divisiveness of politics, about how it’s wrong to separate people. From accusations of “class warfare” to charges of exclusion, we like to pretend America is one big, happy family, and that “united we stand; divided we fall” is an ethic to live by—until it’s not. This is only a categorical imperative for the lowly, the lesser. If politicians are allowed to lie, it sends the message that the rest of society is somehow not entitled to the same privilege, that an exception is made for the politician. Somehow, the view has been turned upside down. Instead of those who tell the truth being placed above those who lie, lying engenders a dividing line. Those who can lie with relative impunity live in the VIP room of society. They end up thinking they are allowed to act in a way contrary to the behavior expected of the general population, and how is this normally abhorrent behavior justified? Well, they must be special, or their circumstances are special. Either way, they are patricians to the rest of the American plebeians. They—the politicians—are the elite who must pay lip service to everyone else. This leads to the cordoning off of certain sections of society, like politicians, who are allowed to act in a way normally viewed as unbecoming for the rest of us. It leads to politicians thinking they are special, therefore, further separating themselves from being “one of the people”. One cannot expect to be accurately represented by such a person.
5. It’s Disingenuous: What’s real?: This is an important point: I’m not saying all politicians lie, and I’m not saying they do it all the time. If it happens even once in a presidential debate, however, that is one time too many. It’s unbelievable to me that there actually exists an adviser to the Romney campaign who claims that the campaign is not beholden to fact checkers. This statement is viewed by some as heroic. Really? Facts don’t matter? What else do we have? Suddenly, a campaign can create its own reality. Well, not only is that unfair, and the other candidates do not even stand a chance if fictional versions of themselves are presented to the public, but it’s pretty irrational and scary, not to mention incredibly arrogant. Facts do matter. Unbiased data is essential. Voters have the right to make informed decisions based on real evidence. No one should be allowed to cheat.
When you watch the debate tomorrow night, judge the candidate’s integrity. This is important. You deserve to be told the truth, and not to be manipulated. Demand a basic level of decency and honesty from politicians. Your vote matters. They are there to serve you, and lying about their records or their opponents in an effort to get ahead or pull one over on voters should be a disqualifier. Think about it: it would be in almost any other position or area of life. Those who make the climate comfortable for liars are equally responsible. Honesty and integrity are basic tenets. Telling the truth is the least people can do.