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The Sweet Smell Of Cynicism: Lying Politicians And The Voters Who Love Them

Every election, political campaigns get more superficial, costly, intrusive and deceitful. Cynics will say, “So what’s new?” But we should be aware of trends that are insidious.

Maybe the increased negativity is offset by positive developments. For example, there’s more information available about candidates, more citizen activism and skepticism. Still, we should think about those things that undermine our faith in self-government.

Lying Politicians

A recent essay in The Atlantic is titled, “A Brief Reflection on Lying Politicians.” Conor Friedersdorf wrote:

Mitt Romney’s unusually frequent flip-flops, shameless misrepresentations of the truth, and brazen pandering has caused some pundits to marvel at how dishonorable he is. “How did this happen?” Scott Galupo asks. “How did we come to this pass, where a man like Mitt Romney — whose candidacy represents a breathtakingly cynical, borderline nihilistic pursuit of power on behalf of a tiny sliver of the population — sits within striking distance of the highest office in the land?”

I won’t defend the Republican nominee. But I am a bit confused by all the folks who aren’t as disgusted by President Obama’s performance on these metrics. This is, after all, a man who misrepresented his core to the electorate in 2008, constantly asserting that systemic reform would be his first priority in Washington, D.C., only to arrive in the White House and work within the system. The incumbent also accepted huge amounts of cash from Wall Street, staffed his administration with insiders from big finance, continued to bail out their industry, and failed to hold it accountable for its role in the financial crash. Meanwhile he shamelessly reversed himself on numerous national security matters, breaking explicit campaign promises and pursuing policies that he once denounced as immoral, illegal, and harmful to the United States of America. For those voting Republican or Democrat this November the choice is between two phonies.

Friedersdorf may be too harsh in his appraisal, but he poses an old, troubling question — whether the pursuit of power is inherently corrupting:

Can anyone become president without lying? Without misrepresenting their opponent? Without using people as a means to an end? I don’t think anyone can. And I have no idea how a nation would go about reversing the ratchet effect successfully.

Dishonest Ads

TV spots by both presidential campaigns employ character assassination techniques that we ordinarily wouldn’t see until the final weeks of a race. A new Romney spot accuses Obama of being a liar, and an Obama spot depicts Romney as a heartless outsourcer. Both sides are manipulating “facts” and the ad-makers apparently take pride in that.

John Dickerson, writing for Slate, says criticism of the ads by fact-checking organizations doesn’t really matter to the campaigns:

This is further confirmation of an essential truth both campaigns have embraced about fact checking: The upside from a strong distortion is better than the downside from the hall monitors. If you’re not getting four Pinocchios or a pants-on-fire, you’re not doing it right. Let them boo — as long as the message gets through.

Self-Aggrandizement

In my last commentary, I made a little fun of Scott Brown’s new TV spot, where his wife, TV reporter Gail Huff, says he is the most understanding of women of any man she knows. I wondered why his campaign ran an ad so personal and superficial for a month. Now we learn his fundraising for this quarter was $3 million less than his opponent’s, Elizabeth Warren. Could it be that some Republicans don’t wish to send hard-earned money to a campaign that would spend it on advertising the senator’s sensitivity?

Hiding From The Media

Warren entered the race as a renowned consumer advocate who fought for transparency, access and full disclosure. But when she couldn’t adequately explain why Harvard and UPenn gave her minority status based on her claim that she was 1/32 Cherokee, according to family lore, she refused to do interviews unless the journalists agreed not to ask her questions about the issue. Why didn’t she instead do what John McCain did when a New York Times story implied he had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist? He held a news conference and answered questions until there were no more questions, and the story then died.

For the past month, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has been absent from Congress and his staff has not disclosed his whereabouts or why he’s missing in action. There’s speculation that he suffers from a mood disorder, clinical depression, drinking, or stress about his being investigated for allegedly trying to buy the Illinois Senate seat formerly held by the president. Are his constituents not entitled to know from their tax-paid representative, or his tax-paid staff, why he’s not at work? Is there another profession where someone would leave for a month without providing any explanation to the employer?

Unrealistic Rhetoric

Obama won the White House by inspiring a new generation with old-style oratory. Now many are disillusioned because the leader who promised to be transformative did not fulfill their hope for change. Surely he didn’t need to go so far in raising expectations, like this passage in a rousing speech:

If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Vague is Vogue

Romney speaks in generalities, not wanting to get specific because then he might have to explain inconsistencies with past positions. He must feel relieved that the old flip-flopper charge hasn’t been leveled as much recently. But if he is elected, what’s his mandate? He can make changes by appointments and executive orders, but he also will need Congress to enact new legislation. How can he win some Democratic support if he can’t plausibly claim to have a mandate, and how can he claim a mandate if he ran on platitudes?

Stupefying PACs

Yes, billionaires are people too. But if a few individuals spend tens of millions in swing states in the final weeks, and the election is decided in one state by a narrow margin — like we saw in 2000 and 2004 — imagine the anger and disgust. If Super PACs prove to be super in their impact, that won’t make people feel more patriotic about government of, by and for the people.

Giving Voters A Mud Bath

Voters in swing states are already bombarded by non-stop ads. Yet it will get worse, with robo-calls, snail mail, social media, personal canvassing, etc. And the messaging will get increasingly alarming and negative the closer we get to the election. Politics can seem ugly in news coverage, but that’s nothing compared to anonymous, last-minute smears. This isn’t new — there have been many insults and accusations in past elections, going back to some of our founding fathers — but it will be much worse this time.

It’s easy to feel gloom and imagine doom, but perhaps we’re close to a tipping point in our politics where public revulsion will force constructive reforms and higher standards. Surely it’s not cynical to say that it’s long overdue.

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