Trust, Lies, and the Election

Apparently, this presidential campaign is full of lies, and accusations of lying, but Americans don’t seem to care too much.

Screenshot of Pinocchio from the trailer for the film Pinocchio (1940). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Calling someone a liar “crosses a line,” but it’s now become part of the “formal strategy” at the highest levels, says Daniel Henninger in the WSJ. After explaining that this tactic was used to destroy opponents during political show trials in the 1930s, he asks how “an accusation once confined to the lowest, whiskey-soaked level of politics or rank propaganda campaigns is occurring daily in American politics?” As a case in point, during last night’s vice presidential debate, Biden accused Ryan of “being full of it,” and then the two chuckled about it.

And when the US Labor Department announced that the unemployment rate fell from 8.1 to 7.8% in September, it spawned what the HuffPost called a “jobs-numbers trutherism” scandal. Some conservatives rejected the favorable report as “Orwellian” or “pro-Obama propaganda” ahead of the November 6 presidential election. Former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch implied on Twitter that this was the “Chicago guys” helping President Obama after his disappointing debate a few days before. After he was criticized for his statement, Welch compared the current political situation here to that of “Soviet Russia” or Communist China. I wonder how many other people are making references to totalitarian/fascist systems, lately.

Thinking about trust and conspiracy theories, I looked on the Gallup website for information about the level of popular trust in the US government. The results of the organization’s September 6-9 governance survey surprised me, because I had expected more evidence of cynicism. Gallup concluded that “Americans are feeling more confident about the federal government’s ability to handle both international and domestic problems than they have in several years.” Where international problems were concerned, 80% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans had confidence in the federal government. For domestic problems, those numbers were 69 and 33%, respectively. (This poll was conducted before the labor report was released, and also before the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.)

The same poll found that trust in all three branches of government was up slightly, even if trust in the legislative branch has dropped the most over the last decade. The author wrote, “the Founding Fathers set up the legislative branch, of course, to directly represent the people. The low level of trust rank-and-file Americans have in that branch thus signifies at least a temporary disruption in what the Founders may have envisioned.” That’s putting it very mildly. Gallup also found that Americans’ trust in the mass media was low, “with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” The author explained that the level of distrust always increases during election years, but this year the “negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year.”

Trust in the government’s ability to handle problems isn’t the same as trust that leaders will be honest. Maybe this means people don’t even expect honesty anymore, as long as problems are solved. In an interview with The Atlantic, New York educator Colin Greer said “basic institutions have been usurped by the small lie. … A big lie is recognizable and has impact, but the small lie undermined the ability to believe in the truth, leads you to think there’s no such thing as truth.” It gets scarier. Philosopher and NYT blogger Jason Stanley even suggested that it’s not technically possible for politicians to lie anymore, because no one expects to hear the truth from them, and because politicians know that people can verify what they say: “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.”

Is there a cure for this? If too many Americans already believe that politicians only speak in lies, then would it matter if they started telling the truth exclusively? What would that kind of political campaign look like?


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