Rick Perlstein has a wonderful article up at The Daily Beast about how voters turned out in the polls to register their disapproval of having their taxes raised, when actually, their taxes were cut. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that governance is impossible in the current atmosphere, because what you actually do doesn’t matter a bit in terms of convincing people to vote for you. What matters is what people think you do. In a properly functioning democracy, what people think aligns more closely to what is actually true, but in our dysfunctional democracy, the voters actually are more likely to believe something that isn’t true than something that is.
This is for two reasons: 1) Republicans are shameless liars and 2) There are no checks on their shameless lying.
On cable news, the belief that taxes were raised for most people is trotted out without correction, since everything is about what someone said, not what the actual facts are. The most you’ll get most of the time is, “Republicans claim taxes went up. Democrats claim taxes went down. Let’s talk to this moron over here about what this means for the elections.” Rarely do you get a report on what actually happened, and rarely do they make it as entertaining as the horse race coverage on the rare occasions they do report the facts.
But in recent years, it’s gotten even worse, since the coverage has gone from, “Republicans said (fill in uncorrected lie). Democrats said (something closer to the truth).” Now it’s “Republicans said (lie that’s so outrageous that it can be fact-checked in two seconds, not that anyone is going to do that). Democrats said (mumble mumble civility).” As Rick argues:
When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes “uncivil” to call out liars, lying becomes free.
And dammit, the essence of Obamaism as an ideology is that it is Uncivil to Call Out Liars.
Which brings me back to the Rally To Restore Sanity, which was widely and correctly criticized for embodying Jon Stewart’s worst tendencies of making false equivalences. But I want to commend them strongly for one thing they did do exactly right, which was to stake out territory where calling out lies and bullshit is not considered uncivil. That’s basically what “The Daily Show” is all about, after all. The definition of “civil” isn’t “never do anything that makes someone else uncomfortable or angry”, because that automatically means that you have to be complicit with people who exploit that to do actual bad things. Indeed, bad people are drawn to those with a mistaken idea of what civility is, because they’re easy to exploit. You don’t have to forget someone is a human being to call bullshit. In fact, I would argue that the greater call towards civility is towards the public at large. The only way to be civil to the voters is to speak the truth without shame.