“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Proverbs 6:16-19
The Bible is pretty clear about lying. It’s the eighth commandment. Proverbs classifies those who lie and sow discord as “an abomination”. Those who like to cite Bible verses about homosexuality place a lot of weight on the use of the word “abomination”. Even Jesus, when asked by the rich man which commandments he should follow included the prohibition against lying.
I know that Mormons use both the old and new testament too. So I’m also sure that Mitt Romney is familiar with the concept of false witness. That makes the most recent turns of his campaign that much more distressing because they indicate that this man who claims to be a devout Mormon is either delusional or deeply cynical regarding the practice of his religion.
The Romney campaign has been running a series of ads claiming that President Obama is gutting welfare.
These ads have been widely criticized as inaccurate and race-baiting. It has been universally condemned by the fact finders. Politifact gave it their worse rating, “Pants on Fire”. The Washington Post gave it four Pinocchio’s. Factcheck.org concurred. All of the major newspapers echoed the fact-checkers.
The Romney campaign, however, seems undeterred.
“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O’Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. “It’s new information.”
“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” Romney Pollster Neil Newhouse said.
In other words, we don’t care whether our ads are factually accurate. All we care about is how people respond to our ads. This ad convinces more people to vote for Mitt Romney than any other ad that we have. So we are going to continue to make this claim even though it has no basis in fact.
Further, we aren’t going to let ourselves be limited in any way by any other claims that we make. We are going to say and do whatever is required to get elected and we really don’t care what the consequences are for our actions. If inflaming old racial stereotypes is what we need to do to drive more of our voters to the polls in November, we are going to do it. This is a no holds barred campaign and we are in it to win it.
The big difference here is when the Kerry campaign suffered a similar fate; the perpetrator of the Big Lie was an independent group supposedly unconnected to the Bush campaign. This Romney ad is not some PAC or other interest group shredding the truth. These ads are running with Mitt Romney’s personal endorsement.
The first question is why they think they can get away with this tactic and not suffer some consequence from voters?
The second is what the long term implications are if these sorts of political tactics are successful?
There are certainly the rationalizations that the right wing echo chamber have been making that the Romney campaign can use to justify their actions. The Obama campaign has also been telling lies, but that’s not really the question. The “Romney killed my wife” Obama ads were the product of a PAC. Because of the public outcry including the fact checkers, those ads never did actually run. If the Romney campaign took a similar stance on their “welfare” ads, they would defend their position but stop making the assertion and move on as the Obama campaign did. In this case, the Romney campaign’s primary defense is that they aren’t going to stop running an effective ad even though it is inaccurate.
The Romney campaign thinks they can get away with this because Republicans have developed three effective strategies to minimize the impact of fact-checkers.
The first is the basic tenant of Big Lie politics. That is to repeat your lie louder and more often than those objecting to it. Eventually the lie drowns out the truth. If you have the money and the determination, this tactic has already been proven effective in past campaigns. Willy Horton and Swift Boat are just two examples. There are mountains of campaign cash flowing into the Romney campaign and the shadowy unregulated semi-independent PACs supporting his campaign. So the Romney campaign has the means to mount a sustained effort to establish their lie as the truth.
The second is the ongoing Republican campaign to discredit the mainstream media. This has created distrust among conservative voters of anything in the mainstream media that contradicts their views or the views of their candidates. Evidence of this is the Romney campaign’s suggestion that, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs.” This is code for the claim that the fact checkers share the same liberal bias as the mainstream media. One need look no further than the dust ups that Politifact.com has had with MSNBC and the Obama campaign to appreciate that these organizations are committed to holding ALL politicians and parties accountable to the truth.
The third is the conservative media who make huge amounts of money repeating right wing talking points and supporting conservative candidates. They both spread the lie and create doubt about any sources who suggest the lie has no basis in fact. Rush Limbaugh said, “But I have no reason to lie to you about any of this, and there’s nothing in it for me to be wrong. It does not help me to be wrong about any of this. There aren’t any lies in the Romney welfare reform ad.” The next day he accused Obama administration of exerting undue influence on the government’s Hurricane Center’s prediction models in hopes of disrupting the Republican Convention. Rush clearly has this figured out since his act generates somewhere north of $40M/year for him.
The result is a parallel Republican universe where anything is free game, pollsters and pundits can create whatever claim they feel will best advance their agenda, and where fact-checkers are irrelevant.
The implications for democracy are dire. Democracy depends on informed debate and compromise. We have elections (rather than civil wars) to decide those particularly troublesome issues where compromise fails. We also have the balance of law and the judiciary to protect minority rights from being trampled by the majority.
Without a shared set of facts, you can’t have productive debates or effective compromise. Instead ideology is allowed to trump reality and demonize compromise. When that happens, we leave ourselves open to demagogues. To quote Robert Reich, “A society without trusted arbiters of what is true and what is false is vulnerable to every lie imaginable.”