The Politics of Lying
I almost didn’t publish this article. I’ve lost faith that people really care about the explanations. Americans are spoiled. They want what they want, and won’t accept any alternatives or variations. Even if this post had worldwide attention, I doubt it would matter. Democrats vote for Democrats, Republicans vote for Republicans, and swing voters vote for whomever is tallest. No amount of education or logic will change that. Then, my cousin, Kessel Junkie, inspired me to go ahead and hit the publish button as an expansion of my response to his note on recall elections. In truth, I’m mostly just writing to him, but if anyone other than he reads this and gives it some serious thought (whether they agree or disagree), that’s great, too.
In my article on Romneycare, I noted that there are many misconceptions Americans have with respect to how the government works, which directly cause us to hold ridiculous views. I also noted that politicians help perpetuate those misconceptions rather than correct them, even though correcting the misconceptions would get them off the hook very easily. Lastly, I said that I didn’t understand why politicians helped perpetuate our misconceptions.
I lied. Ironic, isn’t it?
I know exactly why this is the case, but my writing tends to use far too many parentheticals , long “em dashes,” and other means to make side points and go on tangents. I didn’t need to cloud the issue any more than I already was with, among other things, my stabs at FDR’s New Deal. The short answer is this: We punish presidential candidates when they tell us the truth.
What Did You Just Ask Me?
I estimate that about 75% of the questions that I’ve heard asked of presidential candidates are actually irrelevant to the position. This is due to the doctrine of the separation of powers that we all reference but don’t truly appreciate. In the one and only Republican presidential debate I watched, the candidates were asked by a voter, Sylvia Smitt(sp), what they would do to repeal Obamacare (otherwise known as the “Affordable Care Act” or the “ACA”). This was the debate in which Representative Michelle Bachmann announced her candidacy for President. Bachmann answered first, declaring with a stressed voice that she “would not rest” until she repealed Obamacare (0:57). She repeated that in an interview (2:42) after George Stephanopolous implicitly indicated it would be possible (0:50), so it was no accident of words. She’s telling us that, as president, she would repeal Obamacare.
As a current member of Congress, she’s one of only a (relatively) few people that actually has the power to repeal legislation. Was she announcing that she was simultaneously entering and dropping out of the race for President? Was she under the impression that she could stay in Congress even if elected President? Of course, the answer to both questions is no. Instead, she was playing to our ignorance as to how the government – our government – works.
Using another example, the budget is a creature of legislation. If you don’t believe me, just read the US Constitution. It’s on page 1. So, when we say that this President destroyed our economy, or that President saved it, we’re talking nonsense. To the extent that the government dictates the health of our economy (relatively little, in fact), Congress is almost completely responsible, with the president’s discretion on how to enforce laws having much less impact. Even where the President is relevant, with the exception of the veto power, everything that the president can do to affect the economy is ultimately subject to the power of the legislature. If Congress didn’t like what the President did, Congress could pass legislation restricting the President’s future actions in that regard. The President’s job is to execute the laws as written (though sometimes he ignores them), not create them or change them to suit his political sensibilities. Put another way, the President must always follow the rules, but the rules are set by Congress.
By the way, the state governments work the same way, with state legislatures writing the laws, and the Governor merely executing them. Again, I point you to my article on Romneycare.
So, with the sole exception of Ronald Reagan (22:45), why don’t Presidents, presidential candidates, and political talking heads correct these misconceptions even when it seems to suit their needs to do so? Here’s an example. On Real Time with Bill Maher (April 15, 2011), Bill Maher pulled out a chart showing how Republicans were responsible for our national debt, called President Bush (43) and asshole, and his crowd of sheep cheered. Prominent Republican and former Lt. Governor of Maryland, Michael Steele, could have pointed out that, to a large extent, the Democrats were responsible for the problems about which they constantly complain. Congress, which sets the damn budget, was largely Democratic for the recent increases, and Republican for the recent decreases (with the notable exception of Bush 43; reference), and thus the Democrats were responsible.
Did Steele make this argument? Did he expose the hypocrisy?
No. Instead, he went along with the ruse, focusing on President Obama’s presidency during which Obama was (supposedly) responsible for even bigger increases, and in the process looked like a fool grasping for straws. Basically, he was relying on the argument, “But you guys are so much worse than we are!” More importantly, however, he was choosing to perpetuate the misconception rather than properly, and easily, defend his party.
Clap, sheep! Clap! Someone said, “Asshole”! Isn’t that cool? Doesn’t that make your opinion seem more meaningful?
Why do these people, who themselves understand the system, help spread the misinformation? It’s because they all understand the psychology of politics, which springs from the fact that we, for the most part, don’t understand the system.
Like Everything Else, It’s All About Drama
In order to feel good about ourselves, we need drama. If we can associate drama with our statement of an opinion, we fool ourselves into believing that our opinion has more importance than it actually has. There are some reasons we’re programmed to do this, but I’ll leave this amusing article to explain those (and other interesting psychological phenomenon) to you.
Politics is no different. By characterizing our candidates as heroes, and the other candidates as villains, we give our actions in the voting booth far more importance than they deserve. Our system governs the behavior of our government far more than the party that’s in power – real change comes only from amendments to, or (mis)interpretations of, our Constitution – yet we all want and need to believe that our vote is what will make things better, and the other guy’s vote will ruin Christmas.
Is this in line with the rhetoric we constantly hear? How much did John McCain suffer for not supporting the claim that “Obama is an Arab” and by implication a terrorist? Representative Mike Castle’s (R-DE) lost his seat for, among other things, refusing to support the claim that Obama was born in Kenya, and by implication unamerican. Have you ever experienced an election in which the political talking heads did not say that the continued existence of this country depended on the outcome of that election? You can’t turn on a 24-hour news channel and not hear that. Go ahead. Turn on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC right now. If some talking heads are being interviewed about the election, someone’s bound to make that kind of a grand, overly-dramatic statement. (While writing this part of the article, I turned to CNN, and the story being covered is, “Did the Pope’s Butler Really Do It? Inside the Vatican Leak Scandal.” Sorry, but I can’t support my point at the moment.)
Update: I tried again while writing this note. After sitting through the commercial break, CNN had a story entitled, “Boehner Makes Nice with Pelosi.” You’re killing me, CNN! I know I’m right!
So Why Lie?
I repeat my estimate from above: I estimate that about 75% of the questions that are asked of presidential candidates are actually irrelevant to the position. (I’m probably being dramatic with that estimate. More irony, huh?) So, let’s say Governor Mitt Romney is asked, “Will you repeal Obamacare?” The correct answer is, “No, because it’s not in my job description. Next question.” Instead of that answer, though, Romney will give a 5 minute promise that he’ll undo Obamacare in his first month in office, and why that’s a good thing. (I’m speculating here. To my knowledge, Romney hasn’t made this particular statement.) In fact, Romney has repeatedly justified ‘his passage of Romneycare,’ even during the Republican debates, when in fact 1.) he didn’t have the power to pass it, and 2.) actually vetoed 8 sections of the bill, doing everything he could to prevent the passage of the sections he found most egregious. Why didn’t he tell this to his fellow Republicans, who would have been very sympathetic to his actions?
The answer is twofold. First, as the governor, he’s largely powerless on the issue. Six of his vetoes were overruled within a month, and the other two 5-6 weeks after that. Even though his impotence is by design, that’s not the way we’d interpret things. We’d blame him, rather than the organization of our government, for his inability to act. That is, we’d see it as personal weakness rather than merely law-abiding behavior, and we don’t elect weak leaders, dammit!
Second, and more importantly, he needs to get us riled up. If he lies, his supporters cheer, and the explanation he gives as to why repealing Obamacare is a good idea might convince people on the fence that Obamacare is bad. On the other hand, what would he get from telling the truth? We all get confused. We’re told that we don’t know what we’re talking about, and that triggers our insecurities, which we transform into anger towards the candidate that exposed them. It also leaves us unsatisfied, because we don’t have anyone to cheer at that moment. Well, because we’re either going to cheer the candidate or boo the candidate, in the absence of a reason to cheer, we boo. We rationalize it as, “Well, that bastard deflected the question!” when in fact it’s due to our ignorance, which has just been proven.
So you see, the default position is to boo candidates. Candidates must lie in order to get the cheers, even if they’ll have no power over an issue once elected. Then, when the truth comes out (e.g., Guantanamo Bay isn’t closed), we claim it’s the candidate that’s to blame, again deflecting the blame we all share. I’m not saying that politicians shouldn’t be held liable for their own actions, but the reason liars are in office is because they’re the only ones we’ll elect. (On this particular issue, I heard a supporter of President Obama on CNN claim that we need to give Obama a pass because Obama has access to top secret information that we don’t, so he knows better whether Guantanamo Bay should be closed. I was wondering why he didn’t give President Bush that same respect. It’s amazing these people can make these statements with a straight face.)
I promise you, the instant the populace as a whole stops asking candidates irrelevant questions, they’ll stop spreading misconceptions. They’ll know that if they take credit for something outside their job description, we’ll call them out for it and make them pay. Then, as in the Guantanamo Bay example, where the candidate actually is responsible for a particular issue, they’ll be much less comfortable in lying. They won’t know if they’ll actually be held accountable for doing so.
We’re all busy. We don’t have time to learn the ins and outs of our government and constitution. I’m not critical of those that prioritize their kid’s soccer game over a reading of Article I. of the Constitution, and I don’t sit on a high horse because my education and job description require me to have some of that knowledge. Everyone needs to take care of their own business first, and in the time we have left, do the best we can to understand our government. Ultimately, our form of government is designed to shift the burden of understanding onto the professional politicians — I get that — but how can we possibly expect to do our job as a voter if we don’t understand the very basics? If my estimate is correct (it’s almost certainly close), and we’re asking the wrong questions 75% of the time, we’re not really learning anything about the candidates. On what, then, are we evaluating them? Height? (Oh right; we are.)
Congress sets the budget, which includes whether we have a deficit. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) and can repeal it. If your legitimate and knowledgeable belief differs from mine on how Congress should act in these regards, then let’s have a discussion on it. There are certainly plenty of issues worth discussing, and our differences often do matter, drama aside, on whether any particular candidate should be elected to Congress. If, on the other hand, you’re falling for the smoke screen, any good votes on your part will occur by accident, but overall, nothing will actually change.
Remember, in a democracy, the people are the sovereign, and ignorance is no way for us to govern.
In preparing this piece, I rewatched Reagan’s entire speech before the Republican National Convention in 1988. It’s amazing how good of a speaker he was, and how sharp he was (the “missed me” incident starts at about 11:15), how much the rhetoric has changed since then (focusing on communism, inflation, and the misery index), but how much it stayed the same (“We are the change!” at 15:14, et al.; Libyan terrorism). It’s a good watch if you have 46 minutes to kill.