Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Normalizing of Political Lies

The embarrassing spectacle of a sitting president having to issue his long-form birth certificate in what promises to be a futile effort to satisfy conspiracy theorists perfectly illustrates Rick Perlstein's thesis about how right wing liars are enabled by the mainstream media.

Last November, Perlstein wrote about President Obama's refusal to challenge the outright falsehoods perpetrated by the opposition prior to the mid-term elections.  ("How Obama Enables Rush.")  Perlstein lamented that "we live in a mendocracy," i.e. rule by liars.  A prime example was that "Republican politicians, and conservative commentators" lied that "Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic," and because neither the mainstream media nor the White House corrected them, people believed it:  "When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes 'uncivil' to call out liars, lying becomes free."

Perlstein, whose research has focused on the birth of the modern conservative movement around the Barry Goldwater campaign and the Nixon Era (See Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before The Storm:  Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of America), is perfectly positioned to more broadly explain the historical factors that have shaped the "the modern political lie," which he does in a must-read article, Inside the GOP's Fact-Free Nation, just published in Mother Jones. (As Rick says, you can read it on line, but buy it anyway.)
It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we're living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What's changed.
Today's marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest—say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has "weapons of mass destruction," or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation's senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound—until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.
Perlstein takes us from the sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba in 1899 to the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 to the 1970s, when thanks to the examples of courageous truth-telling by Walter Cronkite and Daniel Ellsberg, "all sorts of American institutions—Congress, municipal governments, even the intelligence community . . . launched searching reconstructions of their normal ways of doing business."  One "keynote of 1970s culture" was "a willingness to acknowledge that America might no longer be invincible, and that any realistic assessment of how we could prosper and thrive in the future had to reckon with that hard-won lesson."  But then, as Perlstein writes, "along came Reagan."

Ronald Reagan explicitly built his appeal around the notion that it was time to stop challenging the powerful. A new sort of lie took over: that the villains were not those deceiving the nation, but those exposing the deceit—those, as Reagan put it in his 1980 acceptance speech, who "say that the United States has had its day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith." 
While as Perlstein writes, Reagan "ushered in the 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' era of political lying, . . . it took a deeper trend to accelerate the cultural shift away from truth-telling-as-patriotism to a full-scale epistemological implosion."  What had been building since "at least the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when many viewers complained about the media images of police beating protesters," became fully apparent by the 1980s -- "news became fluffier, hosts became airier—less assured of their own moral authority."

And what evolved was "a new media definition of civility that privileged 'balance' over truth-telling—even when one side was lying."  As a result, "right-wing ideologues" are able to lie successfully and without consequence because they "are amplified by 'balanced' outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said 'controversy.'"

And, here, as Perlstein explains, is the "the difference between the untruths told by William Randolph Hearst and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the ones inundating us now:
Today, it's not just the most powerful men who can lie and get away with it. It's just about anyone—a congressional back-bencher, an ideology-driven hack, a guy with a video camera—who can inject deception into the news cycle and the political discourse on a grand scale.
Sure, there will always be liars in positions of influence—that's stipulated, as the lawyers say. And the media, God knows, have never been ideal watchdogs—the battleships that crossed the seas to avenge the sinking of the Maine attest to that. What's new is the way the liars and their enablers now work hand in glove. That I call a mendocracy, and it is the regime that governs us now.
[Related posts:  Odor of Mendacity]


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