US politics: a punch-up between mythmakers

Partisanship is the lifeblood of politics, but in America we now have hyperpartisanship, where blind groupthink is trumping tough debate.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

It’s ‘the economy, stupid’, James Carville famously advised Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, and 20 years later, in 2012, it’s ‘the economy, stupid’ once again. Given the unemployment crisis and a growing wealth gap, candidates would have to be stupid not to focus on the slow, unsteady recovery. I just wish they wouldn’t focus on it almost exclusively.

It’s not only the economy. But listening to presidential and congressional campaigns (a civic ordeal that’s increasingly hard to avoid), you might forget that America remains at war after 10 years, at enormous human costs to US troops and civilians overseas. You might never even apprehend the war’s economic costs and the additional human damage those costs will inflict, only partly in decreased aid for wounded and traumatised veterans. And you would not have to consider the destruction of civil liberty by the war on terror – even as you’re lectured by the right on the evils of big government.

Right and left, with a few libertarian exceptions, Republicans and Democrats, most notably Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, favour (or fear opposing) gargantuan government in the form of the national security state. Republicans talk about freedom, but they’re talking about freedom from taxes and financial regulations and virtually any restrictions on handguns or automatic weapons – not freedom from ubiquitous surveillance, not the freedom to dissent, not due process, not freedom from popular religions or freedom for unpopular ones (mainly Islam), and not freedom from the violent, repressive war on drugs or militarised, local police. Democrats don’t often talk about ‘freedom’, unless they’re talking about reproductive choice. They talk about ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’, referencing the social contract implicit in entitlement programmes – which voters right and left tend to support whenever they’re on the receiving end.

So, there’s a lot to be said about what is not being said in this campaign, but there is also a lot to lament about the dishonesty of what is being said. The sound of silence on foreign policy and domestic freedom is one major 2012 campaign story. The efficacy of lying is another, and journalists are beginning to cover it.

Liberal commentators have long critiqued Romney’s tenuous relationship with truth, exemplified by his indisputably false, racially inflammatory claim that Obama ‘gutted welfare reform’ by eliminating work requirements for recipients. Conservatives accuse Obama of misrepresenting Romney’s business record and falsely claiming that he opposes abortion for rape and incest victims. The Obama campaign ran a misleading ad about Romney’s views on abortion (but he has adopted so many views, it’s hard to keep track). Non-partisan fact-checkers have been correcting both sides, which spin unemployment, job creation and Medicare numbers with abandon.

But aspiring vice-president Paul Ryan’s notoriously misleading convention speech woke up the mainstream media. The generally apolitical Matt Lauer, host of NBC’s early morning The Today Show, confronted Ryan with inaccuracies in his speech, and, to the delight of Democrats, Fox News columnist Sally Kohn quipped, ‘the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact-checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth’.

Some of his lies or misstatements seemed inconsequential. Should voters care that Ryan wrongly claimed to have run a marathon in less than four hours? Only if you believe that people who tell small lies will have little compunction about telling big ones, and Ryan offered some whoppers, as the New York Times explained: he criticised Obama ‘for the closing of a General Motors plant in Mr Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin – a decision made before the president was elected’. He faulted Obama ‘for failing to act on a deficit-reduction plan that he himself had helped kill’. Additionally, ‘He chided Democrats for seeking $716 billion in Medicare cuts that he too had sought. And he lamented the nation’s credit rating — which was downgraded after a debt-ceiling standoff that he and other House Republicans helped instigate.’

We are in the midst of ‘a new kind of presidential campaign’, the NYT suggested, ‘one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside’. A Romney pollster acknowledged as much: ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’

Political candidates are often inclined to exaggerate and mislead, of course, but this cynical reliance on demonstrable falsehoods has rarely seemed quite so routine. It’s hard to know if many voters notice or care. Strong partisans on both sides readily tolerate or applaud lies told in their respective electoral interests. Or they accept at face value claims made by the candidates they support, especially when they lack time, energy or expertise to investigate the underlying facts. Political lies exploit partisan biases. People will often believe lies disseminated by sources they trust instinctively and want to join. Policy positions on matters of fact as well as belief, from climate change to abortion rights, become ideological badges of belonging. Attack the accuracy of a foundational, ideological ‘fact’, try to expose a political lie, and its believers will contest the truth or dismiss its significance, and label the lie a mere ‘fib’.

Given the intense, angry partisan divisions shaping American politics today, the increasing boldness of outright political lies, signalling the victory of ideology over facts, is no surprise. I’m not bemoaning partisanship: politics is a team sport, after all. I’m critiquing mindless partisanship, blind team loyalties and the groupthink it encourages. Thoughtlessness, marked by the outright refusal or inability to debate and reason with political opponents, is perhaps the overarching story of the 2012 campaign, and of the last several years.

It’s probably no coincidence that increased thoughtlessness has accompanied decreased respect for free speech, especially on the American campus, where people should be taught to confront and debate unsettling new ideas. Chronicling the abuses of repressive speech and harassment codes in his new book Unlearning Liberty, Greg Lukianoff suggests that rampant censorship on campus has contributed to rampant, unthinking hyper-partisanship off campus. Campus speech-policing dates back some 20 years now; generations of students have learned to regard censorship as a virtue and not learned how to engage with antithetical views.

Unprepared for argument, they misunderstand it and question its legitimacy. ‘You attacked me. You negated me’, a young woman accused me recently, when I challenged her opinions. ‘No, I disagreed with you’, I explained. But I don’t think she appreciated the difference.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics USA


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