The matter of truth in politics is as old as civilization. No major American political party has been innocent, as is readily appreciated when recalling four big lies in our recent history:
• The Communist smear charges central to McCarthyism after World War II.
• The flagrant untruths the Lyndon Johnson administration offered up during America’s war in Vietnam.
• President Nixon’s lies about his (and his aides) involvement in the Watergate scandal
• The insistence (contrary to intelligence reports) that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was attempting to build nuclear weapons.
None of these were true. Each of the foregoing big lies had a fateful impact on both our history and that of the world. In a huge way, even if precisely immeasurable, we live today – and pay the price – of costly manipulations of intelligence and facts-on-the-ground data.
If lying today is on a somewhat smaller scale than the four cases noted above, they nevertheless have grown steadily in number. We value those who speak truth to power, yet with increasing frequency we are witnessing power speaking against truth, enough so that analysts suggest we live in a “post-truth” age.
Truth — beliefs congruent with facts and reality — is losing ground to charges of “fake news” and appeals to emotion. Post-truth comes in many forms, including outright lies. The “birther” charge that former President Barack Obama is not a native-born citizen made the rounds for several years. Even though his birth certificate was produced and verified, to this day as many as one-fifth of Americans reject the evidence.
President Obama himself was not immune from making false statements. On many occasions, he insisted that under his health care proposal, “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”
President Donald Trump has far outdone his predecessor. When the 2016 presidential election returns were announced, he claimed that massive voter fraud had cost him the majority of popular votes, a charge that his investigatory commission could not verify. Later, in pushing his tax overhaul proposal, he repeatedly said that “the rich will not be gaining at all.”
Perhaps the most visible example of false reporting came when the president and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeatedly insisted that the Trump inaugural garnered the largest such audience ever. When the news media highlighted the outright lie with photographic evidence, presidential aide Kellyanne Conway gave voice to an “alternative facts” explanation, which amounted to fiction presented in an attempt to save face.
In a different category are the many ways of avoiding truth without fully lying. Withholding relevant data, for example, disables the public from fully understanding climate agreements. Texts are often blacked out, not just for legal reasons. Agreements, or portions thereof, are classified. When we decide to enter a “no-spin zone” on television, we can pretty well assume that’s not what it will be.
“Politics ain’t beanbag,” we’ve heard a thousand times. Politics is about power. There are blows to give and blows to receive in the game, and truth becomes a bystander. At fraught times, especially, politics and truth mix like oil and water. However, that is not to say that all politicians are the same. Some are better in linking decisions to values we cherish.
The danger in not taking a stand against lies and their lesser cousins is that post-truth politics could become the norm. Whom to believe? Why participate in politics? For all too many, it appears, the constant repetition of falsehoods leads to an inability to recognize truth. Listeners begin to feel that false messages are actually true. When that occurs, as writer Jack Holmes has argued, “You can say whatever you want and it’s not a lie.”
It should be acknowledged that despite the discouraging trends in society today, a majority continue to believe that good causes matter, that they want to stand against the corruptions of the age and wish to pass along decent values to the next generation.
Thus at home with our children, in school, at work and at play, we depend on time-tested guardrails of democracy: laws, customs, qualities of personal restraint, a decent respect for reputable institutions – and yes, devotion to truth-telling as best we fallible humans are able.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.