Jason Stanley has a really interesting piece in the NY Times on political dishonesty. He argues that public distrust of politicians is so strong that “it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere. The expectation is that any statement made either by a politician or by a media outlet is a false ideological distortion. As a result, no one blames politicians for making false statements or statements that obviously contradict that politician’s beliefs.”
He moves on to make a very striking suggestion:
An assertion is an attempt to transfer one’s knowledge to one’s audience. It is clearly not true that Obama is seeking to undermine work requirements on welfare. Everyone either knows that it’s not true or can easily find it out by reading what independent fact checkers have said in easily available articles on the Internet. Furthermore, the Romney campaign knows this. So the Romney campaign is not intending to make an assertion. Given this, it’s unfair to accuse the campaign of lying. As I have argued before, it may not be possible to assert or lie anymore in a presidential campaign.
While I think this is really interesting and provocative, I don’t find myself in agreement. Some reasons:
1. We don’t treat the political arena in the way that we would if we thought politicians really weren’t in the business of making assertions. When politicians are fact-checked and their lies are pointed out, this isn’t treated as an error in the way that it would be if someone fact-checked an obviously fictional movie.
2. Political lies DO still cause widespread outrage. In fact, the political lies of the right cause outrage on the left. And the political lies of the left cause outrage on the right. Our reactions manifest a partisanship in terms of which lies we care about (or even acknowledge as lies). But for pretty much everyone paying attention to politics, there are some lies that they notice and care about. (And it’s clearly not true that NO ONE blames politicians for their lies. A quick glance at Jender-Mom’s FB updates during the Republican convention is enough to make that clear!)
A key point in Stanley’s argument is that the people cheering Ryan’s speech surely knew he was making speaking falsehoods, but they applauded nonetheless. But there are two possible explanations of this which Stanley doesn’t consider: that they were in fact quite ignorant, or that they enjoyed their guy’s lies. Personally, it seems to me the first is really quite likely given the many other falsehoods the Republican audience believes (e.g. about global warming).
Another key point for Stanley is the claim that the Romney campaign doesn’t mean their intended audience to believe what they’re saying. But I’m also unconvinced of this. Their main intended audience is surely undecided voters. And my impression is that undecided voters are also pretty poorly informed voters (how many people do you know who really follow politics and haven’t made up their minds?). There’s no reason to suppose these people will know that Ryan was lying.
So, I’m not sure I agree. But I am finding it really useful to think through this stuff.