Welcome to the lying land of politics. The past few weeks have seen McCain ads accuse Barack Obama of comparing Sarah Palin to a pig and liberal bloggers argue that Sarah Palin’s five-month son is actually the child of her teenage daughter, Bristol Palin.
Granted, McCain later disavowed his earlier accusations, and the bloggers were embarrassed when it came out that Trig couldn’t be Bristol’s baby since she was pregnant with another child at the time of Trig’s birth. Still, there’s an underlying problem that exists and has always existed in politics.
Elections aren’t about the truth. They are about what people perceive as truth.
It’s these perceptions – that John McCain loves Bush, that Obama will raise your taxes – that each candidate is counting on to bring them to the White House.
For instance, Barack Obama has an ad out claiming that John McCain voted to “cut” education spending when McCain really just voted against increases in education spending that Democrats wanted. It also accuses McCain of proposing the abolishment of the Department of Education when he only said once in an interview that he might approve of a similar suggestion. In the primaries, Obama said that Hillary Clinton called NAFTA an economic “boon,” when the term was actually from a newspaper article. Moreover, Obama distorted McCain’s views on economic “progress” with selective quoting showing McCain praising current economic conditions without McCain’s accompanying criticism.
McCain has been just as bad or worse. He claimed that Palin sold a state jet symbolizing corruption on eBay for a profit – she sold it via conventional methods for a loss. A McCain ad said that Obama and Biden had dismissed Palin as “good looking” – based on an off-hand comment by Biden when asked about the biggest difference between the vice-president hopefuls. McCain has also continually argued that Obama would raise taxes for everyone, when in fact, Obama’s tax plan only increases taxes for those making above $250,000 – a tiny minority of the U.S. population.
Sarah Palin hasn’t been much better. She said that she told Congress “thanks but no thanks” on the Bridge to Nowhere; in fact, she scrapped the project only after it became an embarrassment and kept the money for other projects. She said that Obama has never authored a single major law or reform in his career when he was a key part of several major works, most notably in government ethics. Her claim that Alaska produces 20 percent of domestic energy was labeled “Energetically Wrong” by Factcheck.org, which itself also had to fact check the McCain campaign’s citation of – you guessed it, Factcheck.org.
They do this because we let them. After all, an advertisement that plays during House will reach many more people than short corrections on the news. Even if a claim isn’t true, the mere debate around it – “Will Obama raise your taxes? Stay tuned to find out!” – can cause an untruth to become more entrenched within the mind of a voter. The discussion on Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright reminded voters of Wright’s messages in church. Just making false claims to make waves has become an accepted, if not agreeable tactic, as McCain has demonstrated by repeating the debunked taxes line again and again.
Because of this, we’ve built up a political culture that expects lies. Palin has been called out time and time again about the Bridge to Nowhere, but she keeps repeating the line. She keeps lying. Obama repeated the Clinton NAFTA “boon” line in the primaries, despite repeated reports that she had never used the term. Things have gotten so bad that Karl Rove, yes, that Karl Rove, has said that McCain’s ads have gone too far past the “100 percent truth test.”
So what do we do about it?
In the short term, we can guilt-trip the media. The cable channels, pundits and networks need to hear that these lies come as a direct challenge to their ability to fact check. Debunking “boon” or “Bridge” the hundredth time might be boring, but the media needs to know that its job is to do exactly that – not to draw on magic whiteboards. No one likes to hear that they are failing at their job, and the lies of each campaign show that both campaigns think the media won’t hold them accountable.
In the long term, we can stop giving to these campaigns while they lie and ask our parents and friends to do the same. We can vote for third parties who don’t have a chance to win in protest. But these actions need to be accompanied by telling those campaigns and candidates that their lies have lost our support. If the political climate shifts against falsehood, candidates will set a new sail.
Will Slack ’11 is from Decatur, Georgia. He lives in Morgan.