When Does Political Lying Not Work?

Fred Allen kisses Jack Benny

Granted, a pillar of our political spectacle is lying. We’re inured to most political lying, and even when some lies disturb us, we may choose to overlook them or to pretty them up by thinking of them as “truthiness” (pax, Colbert). Some people wanted to overlook Nixon’s and Clinton’s lies, and indeed, Clinton survived the exposure, so to speak, of his lies about a White House dalliance.

Radio comedian Fred Allen once observed, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a firefly, and still have enough room for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.” (That’s a nicely written joke, by the way, partly because we don’t see the specificity of caraway seeds coming, and also because the joke just keeps building until the very last word.) At any rate, if we replace “sincerity” either with “truth” or “shame” and replace “Hollywood” with “American politics,” then Allen becomes a political scientist. Going to American politics in search of truth or shame is indeed like going to Hollywood in search of sincerity.

That said, the Republicans’ lies about legislative changes to the health-care system fascinate. I will pause here to grant (once more) that all politicians lie, not just Republicans, and that there may well be much to which to object in the legislation, so I’m not indirectly defending either the Democrats or the legislation. I’m merely concentrating on the Republicans’ lies because they seem especially intriguing, and even from the perspective of rhetoric’s long tradition of hyperbole, they astound. Let’s review a few of them:

The legislation is an example of socialism.
No, it isn’t. There isn’t a reliable definition of socialism that will encompass this legislation, partly because it will provide more customers to health-care corporations, doctors, and hospitals that are not of the government. This legislation makes Obama look like . . . Eisenhower. Eisenhower: not a socialist.

The legislation includes provisions for “death panels.”
No, it doesn’t. Not even close.

The legislation was written in secret
. No, it wasn’t. Obviously, there was lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, chiefly to do with legislative process-trickeration (pax, Bobby Bowden), but the main proposals were reported on exhaustively and are now being listed, ad nauseum, by newscasters, and are not being greeted by surprise, let alone shock.

The legislation was strictly a product of left-leaning Democrats. No, it wasn’t. The Republicans made similar proposals in the 1990s, and no serious conception of a “Left” in American politics can include such basic, pragmatic proposals as doing away with the infamous “donut hole” and attempting to prevent insurance-companies from cutting off benefits pretty much arbitrarily. True, some self-identified Leftists may like some of the proposals, but the proposals themselves are not of the Left.

The American people opposed this legislation. No. Those citizens paying some attention were and are of widely varying (and mutable?) opinions, and besides, you lost me at “the American people,” which is always the start of an unsupportable generalization, albeit a favorite one of all politicians.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me the Republicans decided to lie big because they believed their tactics, cumulatively, would amount to a successful strategy to a) defeat all health-care legislation and b) consequently wound Obama’s presidency irrevocably. They went for the knockout punch, it seems, just as Speaker Gingrich did when he threatened to shut down government, thereby challenging Clinton to Potomac duel The punch didn’t knock Obama out, and indeed he seems to have won this bout, and please pardon the rhyme.

At this level, at least, the lies didn’t seem to work. They did, however, seem to rile up a considerable number of citizens, to harden what some call “the far Right” (not sure how accurate that phrase is), and to intensify the pre-existing condition of disliking and disrespecting President Obama. But is this reaction, this riling up, good news for the Republicans, or does it leash them to a kind of political outpost? Example: John McCain must now grovel, touring with Palin, needing to lurch to the right.

(I don’t know whether this is lore or not, but I’m told that the package-company UPS studied the situation and decided that nothing good in terms of efficiency or safety could come of left turns, so that UPS drivers rarely if ever take left turns. Have the Republicans temporarily dedicated themselves to right turns only? Poor McCain’s Straight Talk Express seems to be spinning in a clock-wise direction on Arizona highways, and note that Palin isn’t really in the vehicle.)

Moreover, it’s hard to deny that many aspects of health-care are in dire need of legislative fixing and that constituents in every Congressional district and state suffer from the problems that need fixing. (Again, I’m not arguing that the legislation passed is the best, or even a good, way to fix the problems.) So why not stay in the game, as it were, and negotiate on some things with Obama and the Democrats–in order to address some problems constituents may face? That is, why not spend even 5 minutes out of your political hour on policy? Answers: Because total political victory was deemed more important than legislative victory, and because the knock-out-punch strategy admitted of no cooperation of any kind.

I’m left with a tautology: political lying doesn’t work when it doesn’t work. With Bush and Rove (and Clinton?), it almost always seemed to work, so perhaps we shouldn’t blame the Congressional Republicans and reactionary mass-media-pundits from going for the Big Lies. It looked like a winning strategy.

But perhaps we could posit that, eventually, political lying doesn’t work when it comprises the entire political effort, when demonizing the opponent ceases to be a means to an end and is the end itself. “Eventually,” however, is the sad adverb. Eventually can take one hell of a long time and look like the cousin of forever.

As many observers (from all along the political spectrum) have noted in recent days, the Republicans appear, at least, not to have had a second act, a plan B. That circumstance and the big lies that helped create it are fascinating, at least to a rank political amateur and a professional student of rhetoric like me.


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