The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves."
-- Julius Caesar Act 1, Scene 2
The Village press and the liberal blogosphere have had a field day with Republican convention speeches this week by Congressman Paul Ryan and Governor Mitt Romney. But what critics are missing about “post-truth politics” is that the fault lies not just with mendacious politicians, but with an American electorate that tolerates and enables them.
After this week’s Republican national convention, Fox News contributor Sally Kohn called Paul Ryan’s speech, “an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
The Washington Post called Ryan’s,”a “breathtakingly dishonest speech.”
At The New Republic, the story ran under the headline “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech ... Ever?”
“Honesty is a lost art. Facts are for losers. The truth is dead. Pick one,” begins the New York Times’ Charles M. Blow. He cites Mediaite reporting earlier in August that in Politifact’s “Pants On Fire” category, “Nearly 1 in 10 statements by Romney earned flaming slacks, versus 1 out of every 50 for Obama.” Blow decries the GOP's descent into dishonesty:
And how can a party that incessantly repeats the mantra that our rights were granted by God repeatedly violate a basic tenet of almost every religion: truth-telling? What does it mean when a party that trafficks in American greatness trades in human horridness?
NPR pointed out the lie in anti-Obama ads that accuse the president of removing the work requirement for welfare recipients:
Romney rolled out his line of attack two weeks ago in an ad that says: "On July 12th, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
PolitiFact, The Washington Post's fact checker, and Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org all judged the Romney ad false. Romney pollster, Neil Newhouse, dismissed the reports this week: "We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
Yet all the condemnations of bald-faced mendacity dodge something more disturbing revealed in water cooler conversations and in everyday encounters with voters. Just what that is can be found in the responses of these conservative voters from the same NPR story (emphasis mine):
"We think that the fact that the work requirement has been taken out of welfare is the wrong thing to do," said Peggy Testa, attending a Tuesday rally near Pittsburgh for Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan.
When told that's not actually what had happened, Testa replied: "At this point, [I] don't know exactly what is true and what isn't, OK? But what I do know is I trust the Romney-Ryan ticket, and I do not trust Obama."
Another Romney supporter at the Ryan rally said it's really tough to know what's true anymore.
"I think we always have to look at who the fact checkers are," Ken Mohn said. "There's lots of ... groups that purport themselves to be neutral, nonpartisan, but often are [partisan]."
When confronted with the facts, even less partisan voters than these retreat to the comfortable excuse of “both sides do it” or “it's really tough to know what's true anymore.” Stephen Colbert may have invented the word truthiness to describe something that feels right to believe even if patently false, but conservative true believers were already using the phrase "true facts" to describe the same thing.
This breeziness about truth makes it easy for observers to dismiss them as “low information” voters, but the frequency and predictability of their responses suggests that these are, in fact, convenient evasions, defensive responses. Either these voters are dupes unwilling to admit it when challenged, or they are active propagandists spreading the lies with a wink and a nudge, or on some level they know they are being lied to but suppress the thought – they would rather believe the lies of their tribe's leaders than the so-called facts of outsiders. In any event, these believers in truth, justice and the American way dare not face the fact that their own leaders would deliberately lie to them about cuts to Medicare and welfare work requirements, as they have about Iraqi WMDs, torture and voter fraud.
In a twist on the NRA's "guns don't kill people," Republicans and libertarians sometimes blame the influence of corporate money in government by blaming corrupt politicians. (Corporations, of course, are blameless.) As the theory goes, politicians could not be bought if they were not already for sale. Perhaps this is what Neil Newhouse meant about fact-checking Romney campaign lies: Why blame us for lying when our base is so willing to be lied to?
(Cross-posted from Scrutiny Hooligans.)
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