When words begin to lose meaning, when we smile at the “naive” notion of truth in politics, we have begun to lose ourselves. The mere suggestion of honesty in politics is so naive a notion that discussing it here may seem as if it borders on being pointless.
That, however is the point. When we can all recognize the irony of using the word honesty when discussing politics, the time has come to act. Politics for many has always been a game. It’s been a struggle of rhetorical device. It’s been a struggle of our selected facts verses yours. Recently it’s been the skillful spin of a story to support our position. All of this borders on dishonesty. In many cases it is more dishonest than not, but modern politics has left all of this behind and plunged headlong into deliberate falsehood.
The modern right is not just lying, not just manipulating the facts, not just engaging in propaganda on the web, radio and tv, the modern right is acting on falsehoods as if they were true. Real policy decisions are being made. Real action is being taken entirely based on false pretenses. These are not honest mistakes. These are not misinterpretations of fact, the right is acting with a wanton disregard for fact. In many cases, fact does not even enter into the picture. In an effort to appear unbiased, the media openly debates the obviously untrue and the left joins into the conversation as if the falsehood has merit.
We saw this in the healthcare debate as the right made claim after claim that was patently false. Three of these lies rang particularly untrue. First, they riled up their constituents with “death panels”. Were there death panels? No. Will there be death panels? No. In fact, this was Politifact's “Lie of the Year”. Yet we spent a significant portion of a very vital healthcare debate discussing a claim of absolutely no substance. Second, we heard and continue to hear that “Obamacare is a government takeover of healthcare”. Again, patently false. The bill does not involve the government taking over healthcare. The bill instead creates millions of new customers for private health insurance companies. The merits of this approach can be debated, but there is no truth in the claim of a government takeover. Third, as the bill neared passage we heard the right make baseless claims that the bill was “shoved down our throats”, written and passed in the middle of the night. Pay no attention to the previous year of debate. Ignore the facts, claim that the bill was conceived and passed without anyone knowing about it.
What if instead of debating, discussing and covering these blatant falsehoods, we had instead debated the issues affecting our healthcare system?
Another example can be found in the conversation on energy policy. In states across the nation very real issues have arisen with the practice of hydraulic fracturing. The Bush administration made a point to exempt hydraulic fracturing and the companies that use the technique from clean air and water laws. If hydraulic fracturing were harmless, why take the time to specifically draft regulations to exempt them? Now as the truth begins to surface in the press and in films like Gasland, the right has begun to wage a campaign to discredit any claim that hydraulic fracturing might in some cases lead to problems. Yet again, rather than address the facts they make baseless claims. The industry and those that support them would have us believe that flammable tap water is naturally occurring.
What if rather than concoct implausible falsehoods we actually looked at the issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing and developed a new method that didn’t poison people’s water? We could have both clean drinking water and a very promising source of energy.
In Wisconsin Karl Rove ran ads to support Scott Walker’s busting of public sector unions. The absurdity of this one needs no explanation. As Rove’s group tells it, the unions need to be broken so we can pay teachers more. They say “government union contract laws hurt good teachers” by limiting how much we can pay the top teachers. The implication being that the only way to pay teachers more is to break the union contracts.
These kinds of lies are more than insidious, they cause very real damage to very real people.
Take for example the war in Iraq. It is common knowledge that the war in Iraq was waged under completely false pretenses. Rumsfeld himself admits that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and that they knew all along that there never were any. He admits that on the afternoon of 9/11/2001 he directed an aid to begin making a plan for the invasion of Iraq. This is not the liberal media painting this picture, this is Rumsfeld himself saying this in his own words. This is the Bush administration itself admitting that it led us to war under pre-meditated false pretenses.
What if we had been honest? We would have saved 4,760 American lives. We would have saved 32,044 wounded soldiers. We could have saved our nation $3 Trillion from being added to our deficit. We could have avoided, depending on the study you cite, between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqi civilian casualties.
Recently, as the deficit and the debt ceiling have come to the fore, we find the right concocting not just falsehoods, but attacking the bedrock of fact. In attacking the Congressional Budget Office, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich and the Republican party are arguing for a budget conversation devoid of facts about the budget. The facts of the deficit and economic inequality are so clear, so vibrant, so vivid that they can not be denied. Falsehoods alone will not do. Falsehood must be combined with condemnation of reality itself. As Gingrich puts it, the CBO is a "reactionary socialist institution".
In this world, a world devoid of the Congressional Budget Office, how do we as a nation discuss the Congressional Budget?
Honesty must be returned to our political process, very real lives depend on it. Lies in and of themselves are bad, even our children understand this. Honesty is a national value, it’s part of our national fabric. We hold up icons like Honest Abe and George Washington’s inability to tell a lie. Honesty gets at our national sense of morality, it gets at our national sense of ethics.
The fact that we assume a lack of honesty in our discourse not only says something about our leaders, it says something about us as citizens, about us as a nation. In order for our politics to improve, we must improve ourselves, we must naively demand that our politicians be honest.
If you are less philosophically inclined then consider the following question. How can we solve our problems as a nation if we build our policy decisions on the best lies rather than the best facts available to us?
The left has done it’s fair share of misleading, of twisting the truth. But the left’s real role in the decline of honesty and truth in our national dialog is in it’s failure to vigorously oppose the obvious lies put forth by the right. We sit by and vote to authorize the war in Iraq. We engage in conversations with the right as if the implausible were the subject we should be debating. We must return the conversation to reality, to fact, to an honest attempt to solve our nation’s problems. How many $3 Trillion lies can we afford? How many $13 trillion bailouts? How many more lives must we lose simply because we refused to fight for the truth?
Simply saying a thing doesn’t make it true. Although with the repetition found in the 24 hour news cycle, Fox News and right wing radio, increasingly simply saying something does make it true. This is all the more reason that we must not express what we know to be untrue.
Conservatives and liberals can debate the policy response to the facts. But no one can get to the right outcome on any issue so long as the right marginalizes true conservative voices while engaging the left in a debate about nothing. As Lawrence O’Donnell puts it, “some things are worth fighting for, even if you lose.”