(Note: This essay originally ran in AltDaily)
OK. So perhaps saying that all political ads in this election cycle are lies is a bit of a generalization. I’ve even seen a couple I thought were pretty good. But I also strongly believe that the amount of deception and obfuscation that’s being employed in modern political advertising is so pervasive that the majority of what you read, see and hear is too far from the factual to be considered anything resembling the truth.
If you take a default position that they’re lies and someone objective will have to determine otherwise, more often than not, you’ll be right - depending on where you personally draw the line.
Political pros will say that a lie of omission or a lie of deception isn’t “technically” a lie, and that this distinction somehow makes their content accurate enough. But ask yourself this: Has any political ad you’ve seen anytime recently made you feel smarter or more enlightened? What exactly did you learn? Did you believe what you were told? Do you assume those that come from the side you support are truthful, but not those from the other side?
We already know they disrespect each other by the tone of the venal personal attacks that have become so commonplace. But when the campaigns or candidates lie, it indicates that they don’t respect us, either.
Neither the parties, nor their surrogates are spending over $5 billion on advertising to make you a more informed voter. Quite the opposite, I’d say. They’d prefer you fact check nothing, while politely genuflecting to them and treating any contradictory data as being lies from “the other side.”
Partisans and ideologues will try to rationalize this by saying that it’s so important for them to be in power (because, of course, only they can save our country), how unethically or immorally they acted in order to get there doesn’t matter (the end justifying the means).
Just wondering: If a candidates campaign can’t be truthful, why in the world would you assume that the candidate will behave differently once they’re ensconced in office?
Speaking of fact checking, do you? Or do you just take whatever a political ad says as gospel? The one bright spot I see this season is the emergence of dedicated efforts to fact check what the politicos are saying. I don’t think they always get it right, but at least it’s not for lack of effort.
On the other hand, political journalism in general is worse than ever. Reporters and their outlets are so engrossed with the daily arguments from each camp (which amount to ten year-olds engaging in an exchange of: “I know you are, but what am I?”) that they ignore actual issues. In other words, they cover the competition in the form of the daily machinations of the campaigns (which few outside the D.C. Beltway actually care about), while ignoring the ramifications of the outcome.
While Fox News and MSNBC graphically demonstrate that there are definitive exceptions, the media in general isn’t really biased towards one party or the other. They’re biased towards whatever story they believe will generate the most consumer traffic, and thus the most advertising revenue, while trying to balance that against the risk of who they may piss off.
News departments have little say-so over this. I think they largely get their marching orders from sales departments these days. Reporters who resist will quickly find themselves unemployed.
For most of us, process stories are boring, while scandals and crises appeal to the salacious voyeuristic side of America’s cultural zeitgeist, and thus draw the most viewers and/or readers. I suppose in that light, asking media outlets to establish standards for truthfulness and civility in political ads is a bit over-the-moon, huh? Then they’d be ostensibly admitting that they have, in fact, empowered the degeneration of political discourse in our country.
There are sources, such as my favorite - Project Vote Smart, that analyze candidates’ histories and other data and try to parse where the candidates stand - usually with a fairly high degree of accuracy. But for the most part, you won’t hear much about them from mainstream media because, if you did, you might start realizing just how poorly the media is serving your interests while stuffing their coffers with political revenue.
If you’re not taking advantage of available resources to back check what the ads say, then you’re a lazy fool who deserves the kind of dysfunctional government with which we’re currently inflicted, and which will almost assuredly become worse over the next two years, regardless of who’s actually elected.
So here’s another question: Why do Americans find fund-raising prowess in politics to be impressive? Why Is the ability of one candidate to attract more “money-for-influence” than the other candidate something we applaud? Isn’t that kind of like being impressed that excrement draws flies?
Conversely, why aren’t we impressed by someone who demonstrates an ability to engage in prudent fiscal management by running a lean, disciplined campaign, while rejecting large sums of money that he knows are predicated on the expectation of the donor to acquire the ability to influence policy?
Maybe if we demonstrated how much we resent these attempts to sway our opinions through deception by rewarding the guy who raises and spends the least money, instead of the most, thus demonstrating how adept he is at managing a budget, we’d end up with a different caliber of elected official.
Next question: If we accept the premise that most if not all political ads are less than truthful, what does it say about the people and/or organizations spending all this money to deceive you?
Money in American politics is a rapidly metastasizing cancer. The so-called “Citizen’s United” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively turned our government into an oligarchy controlled by the one-percenters. Unless and until we reject the influence of money in politics, we will never again truly be a Democracy in any sense of the word.
A Constitutional amendment might do the trick. But remember that those who currently hold the most power by virtue of their overwhelming financial resources will say or do absolutely anything to retain or increase their current level of influence by trying to make you fear actual change. It’d be tough to pull off.
So, why not be the source of change yourself? If we treated money in politics as the toxic waste that it is and made sure that any attempt to influence our elections with money was met with serious consequences, we could all experience the sheer joy of knowing that each of our opinions mattered as much as those with greater economic advantage.
I believe the most important point is this: No one currently in power, or vying to get into a position of power is even remotely interested in sharing any of that power with voters. If American citizens want a functional democracy, we as voters have to take control by rejecting the behavior of the current political establishment - particularly the lies.
There is absolutely nothing anywhere that says you have to accept the status quo. We stage a Constitutionally-mandated revolution every two years. All you have to do is choose to actually revolt.
This election cycle is lost - regardless of who wins. But if we immediately start looking for potential independently-minded candidates for Congress in 2014, who commit to rejecting the current power structure and standing up to the two major political parties, we can literally seize power back from the one-percenters in one foul swoop.
Imagine elected officials who first and foremost represent their constituents rather than their party. What a novel concept, huh?
Too much too soon? Then how about at least starting with something as simple as not being positively impressed by a candidate’s ability to raise and spend money? As I think we’ve already established, they’re just trying to provide themselves with more resources to use for the purpose of lying to you.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” Isn’t this an elegant explanation for the current dysfunctional state of our government and political system?
There’s a story going around that after the elections, some American plutocrats will try to remove what few restrictions to money in politics still remain. At that point, and with no resistance from average citizens, we might as well forgo elections in favor of having whoever raises the most money in each race declared the winner.
Tell the people spending $5 billion in this election cycle in an effort to influence you through deception and obfuscation to go screw themselves.
And after Election Day, once all the dust has settled, please make a commitment to completely re-evaluate they way you approach politics in your life. Let’s transform it into an environment where we demand the highest levels of morals and ethics, instead of acquiescing to whatever the establishment chooses to shove down our throats.