the new l-word

Well, folks, I failed to get the op-ed I wrote and mentioned here published anywhere. So I’m posting it here; not to make scatterplot the publisher of last resort, sorry! Here it is.

The New L-Word

There’s a new “L-word” in American politics this season. “Lying” has entered the scene, front and center, as the McCain/Palin campaign plays fast and loose with reality in their quest for the White House.

Twenty years ago, American politics gained a new term: “The L-Word,” liberal, recast as an insult by then-candidate George H.W. Bush in his campaign against Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis. Bush successfully made Americans believe to be liberal was to be out of touch, perhaps even unpatriotic. He managed to do that even though most Americans then—as now—tell pollsters that they agree more with liberals than with conservatives on most issues! The L-word was particularly successful in that Bush never had to make the argument—it was the word that never needed to be spoken because everyone already knew what was to be said.

The man John McCain espouses as his hero, Ronald Reagan, quipped in 1964 that the problem with liberals was that “they know so much that isn’t so.” In a strange turnaround, the McCain/Palin campaign has offered us a new L-word for the 21st century. It is assuming a central place in this campaign, and like the original L-word, it goes unspoken by candidate and media alike for fear of appearing biased. That word: “lying.”

To be sure, candidates have played fast and loose with the truth for generations. Indeed, that same 1988 election gave us the Willie Horton commercial, an infamous case of stretching the truth to make a point. But in the past, candidates have assumed that there must at least be a kernel of truth to their claims, if for no other reason than that the media would notice and publicize a bald-faced lie.

No more. Apparently confident in its ability to scare the media into submission, the McCain/Palin campaign has told a series of bald-faced lies about the candidates’ records and proposals. And the gamble seems to be paying off, as the media has avoided at all costs using the L-word—lying—to refer to this reckless disregard for the truth.

The most consistent lie has been Governor Palin’s claim to have opposed the so-called “bridge to nowhere” and other earmarks, which McCain has made his personal cause. But governor Palin didn’t say “thanks, but no thanks” for the bridge to nowhere. Not only did she support the bridge, she actively campaigned for it—until it was inconvenient, when she dropped the bridge like a hot potato and suddenly claimed to have opposed it from the beginning.

Palin’s boss is in on the action too. He has been touring the country claiming that most Americans’ taxes would go up under Obama’s economic plan. Problem is—it just isn’t so. Independent analyses show clearly that most of us would not experience tax increases, and many middle-class Americans’ bills would go down. No matter, though, because McCain has reversed his old mentor’s quip: he hopes what voters know that isn’t so will trick them into voting his way in November.

Whether this cynical strategy will work is anybody’s guess. So far, the media are doing their jobs. They’ve talked about “untruths,” “stretching the truth,” and “going too far.” When the campaigns’ claims are checked, they’re forced into a two-sided story, implying that everybody’s lying. But the fact is that the vast majority of the pure fictions of this campaign have emerged from the McCain/Palin campaign, and the media are so scared they’ll be labeled with the old L-word (liberal) that they won’t use the new one.

Whether or not the lies work, anyone who believes in democracy ought to be very worried about the strategy itself. How a candidate campaigns says a lot about how he is likely to govern, and the McCain campaign has shown it is willing to do anything, say anything, be anything, to win. But the truth matters. The media and the voters ought to break the taboo, call a lie a lie, and demand that the campaign conduct itself with the honor our republic deserves.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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