Monday, September 15, 2008Everybody knows John McCain is lying. A lot. About nearly everything. The real question is whether he gets away with it, and if so, what that says about our democracy.
The convention wisdom about politicians is that they're all liars. I've been in politics a while now, and yes, quite of few of them are. But they aren't usually liars in the normal sense of the term - they're more like master spin arts and exaggerators. Politicians will try to frame facts to their advantage, but they very rarely entirely invent new facts. Campaign ads and speeches are usually in the range of "50% lies", things are are only partially true, not 100% lies. Until now everyone thought that you couldn't get away with 100% lies. Now McCain is trying to re-write the rule-book. Bush pushed the line, and occasionally stepped over it, in his two presidential campaigns. But I've never seen anything as breathtaking as the actions of the McCain-Palin campaign, where they call black what is clearly white, and when called upon it, continue to do so. Their chutzpah is truly amazing.
So contrary to popular belief, not all politicians are liars. Most of them say what they believe to be true the vast majority of the time, and the others tend to skirt the truth rather than truly abuse it. But the McCain campaign, confronted with a truly hostile political environment, has decided to lie, lie, lie and see if it takes them to the White House.
Why should care? Why is lying such a big deal? Well, the question I have to ask you is - what happens in the next election? If McCain's gambit is successful, what's to stop every candidate for every office to lie with impunity? The cynics out there might suspect that this has always been the case, but the cynics would be wrong. McCain, for all his talk of "honor" is apparently trying to make our democracy truly corrupted, to poison the political discussion for decades.
And worse, McCain's efforts threaten democracy itself. That's a pretty radical statement, I know, but hear me out. Democracies are about letting voters decided - about giving the whole people the opportunity to govern themselves. In a representative system like ours that means that candidates campaign for people's votes. If they do so while engaging in wholesale dishonesty - if they lie their way into office, and lie once they're there, then have the people really decided? McCain's rampant lies aren't just crass manipulation of the voters, it's an attempt to short-circuit the process of representative government. If the voters don't have the ability to make meaningful choices because they don't have the facts (because those facts have been concealed or grossly distorted), then they aren't really governing themselves. The liars are. McCain's election would amount to an unarmed coup.
There is some evidence that the media has finally turned on their darling John - that he's gone too far. If they started negatively spinning everything he does like they did to Gore, then McCain is probably doomed. If McCain's gamble fails, then the danger has been averted and future campaigns will think twice. But if he wins, we are in deep, deep trouble.
In sum, I think of this election as a grand test for democracy. This election will be the Sucker Election. On November 5 we will know precisely what percentage of the American people can be played for patsies. Here's hoping that number is under 50%.