Lies, Damn Lies, and Political Campaigns

Photo: Rosmarie (Creative Commons)

This post appeared on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

We know that high stakes political campaigns are exercises in reality distortion; when candidates go to war facts are often the first casualty. Recent election cycles have brought greater visibility for online campaign fact-check enterprises, most notably, PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Although these sites are not without their skeptics (and even harsh critics), on balance they seem to be fostering at least a smidgen of self-control on the part of candidates and handlers, who would otherwise let their surrogates and ad makers say just about anything.

At least that’s what I thought was going on until the rolling fib machine that is Mitt Romney’s campaign blossomed in all its delusive splendor. Back when he was mud-wrestling for right-wing sympathies during the bruising GOP primary season, Romney showed himself willing to say just about anything to any audience, no matter how inconsistent with his own prior views. But “opportunistic flexibility” (helpful euphemism there for the phrase that also means having the characteristics of rubbery beach footwear) isn’t the same thing as deception; with the former we know what he’s doing, and he knows that we know what he’s doing.

I suppose it qualifies as misrepresentation of one’s governing intentions if the condiment of policy slathered on a slab of red-meat rhetoric is something the candidate has no intention of pursuing. On the whole, though, we are free to be bemused by ideological agility (or flaccidity if you prefer), but it’s not something we need fact-check for accuracy or adjudicate for veracity. It is what it is, and we know what it is. We also know what it is when campaigns engage the customary political practices of tortured message framing and statistical cherry-picking (for which fact checkers routinely throw flags on both the Romney and Obama campaigns).

Lying through your teeth on verifiable matters of factual accuracy is something else entirely, and there are signs that Romney borders on the pathological. Since the first of the year, one of Rachel Maddow’s staffers has been “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” on a regular basis (volume 23 appeared last Friday), enumerating dozens of falsehoods in each installment, week after week. To be fair, there are also those on the right who claim to chronicle Obama’s lies, and they work hard at it. When you compare these lists side by side you do notice that both at times fall into the trap of conflating subjective candidate statements of self-perception and identity with facts to be checked. Obama haters, for instance, think it’s a lie for Obama to describe himself as patriotic, and Romney’s detractors believe the same about a comment by Romney that he’s concerned about the poor.

When you get past this sort of partisan hectoring, you find that Romney more than any politician in recent memory cultivates a cheerfully focused willingness to make concrete assertions on factual matters that are demonstrably false. The mainstream press in the U.S. isn’t inclined to call out a major presidential candidate as a liar, but fortunately we have the foreign press also covering the race, and Michael Cohen at the Guardian isn’t quite so timid:

Quite simply, the United States has never been witness to a presidential candidate, in modern American history, who lies as frequently, as flagrantly and as brazenly as Mitt Romney. Now, in general, those of us in the pundit class are really not supposed to accuse politicians of lying – they mislead, they embellish, they mischaracterize, etc. Indeed, there is natural tendency for nominally objective reporters, in particular, to stay away from loaded terms such as lying. Which is precisely why Romney’s repeated lies are so effective. In fact, lying is really the only appropriate word to use here, because, well, Romney lies a lot.

A couple of questions are suggested by this state of affairs.

First, do we care if our elected leaders feel unencumbered by the truth? Is it disqualifying? As the fact checking sites so amply demonstrate, we tolerate a large amount of cagey and deceptive communication from candidates of all stripes, so why should the baldfaced liar concern us unduly?

Second, have these online rapid-response fact-checking operations, by shining a public spotlight on some of the candidates’ fibs, actually had the effect of diminishing the amount of campaign mendacity. This is an open empirical question, one that perhaps awaits the completion of a political science doctoral dissertation or two.

But not everyone is persuaded that the fact checkers are actually checking facts. The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway, for instance, contends that what  the fact checking sites are really doing is opinion checking, with prejudice. How else to explain, Hemingway wonders, a finding in a University of Minnesota content analysis that Republicans lie three times more than Democrats. How else indeed?

Actually the inference drawn by the Minnesota researchers is not that fact checkers misread opinion as fact, but rather that their choices of political messages to scrutinize suffers from selection bias: “By levying 23 Pants on Fire ratings to Republicans over the past year compared to just 4 to Democrats, it appears the sport of choice is game hunting – and the game is elephants.” Perhaps so, but then again the herd you cull is typically the fertile, populous one.


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