A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies, has forgotten where he's put it.
- Dryden, Lawrence of Arabia
Why the truth squads can’t compete - Andrew Potter, Ottawa Citizen
By general consensus, the just-completed U.S. election cycle saw the triumph of what has been called “post-truth politics.” It marked the final rejection of the notion that telling the truth, about your own policies and opinions and those of your opponent, is in any way necessary, sufficient, or even desirable for electoral success.
Many media outlets responded by devoting resources to high-profile truth squads that evaluated the claims made by the Democratic and Republican campaigns. For example, the Washington Post subjected claims to a “Pinocchio test,” grading them on a scale from one to four Pinocchios. Similarly, the fact-checking website PolitiFact rated claims from “true” down to “half true” all the way to “pants on fire” (i.e., lies).
And while this renewed commitment to what was once the bread and salt of political journalism should be cheered on its own merits, we should probably park any grand hopes that it will have any discernible effect on elections.
Lying for political advantage is as old as the hills. But for the better part of human history, getting caught out in a lie was considered politically damaging, which is why politicians used to go to great lengths to hide the truth. And when caught, they would act apologetic, contrite and somewhat ashamed. But there came a point when politicians discovered that, if you simply kept repeating the same thing, over and over again, people would come to believe it regardless of whether it was true.
Patient Zero for this pathology is Ronald Reagan. During his campaign for president in 1976, Reagan toured the country telling the story of the Chicago welfare queen who allegedly had 80 aliases, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards. When you add in Medicaid and food stamps, Reagan claimed that her annual tax-free income was over $150,000 U.S. The story wasn’t remotely true, but no matter how often it was debunked by the media, Reagan just kept telling it.
This caused a great deal of consternation among reporters. What were they supposed to do? Keep calling out the lie every time it was told? It seemed impossible to do so without being seen as partisan. And yet how were the media supposed to perform their traditional role of holding power to account if those in power simply smiled, nodded and carried on with business as usual?
This marked the emergence of “truthiness” as the defining characteristic of American political culture. What distinguishes truthiness from lying is that, while a lie has the decency to acknowledge the existence of a corresponding truth, truthiness isn’t even in the truth-telling game. It operates in a realm of perception, feeling and gut instinct, where it is more important that something seem true than that it actually be so.
Today, the entire political space seems to operate in a parallel realm almost completely disconnected from our world of facts, logic, inference and evidence. And while the last six months of the U.S. presidential election campaign saw a proliferation of concerted efforts at trying to hold politicians’ rhetorical feet to the factual fire, the effect on the dynamic of the campaign was negligible.
One difficulty is that the truth is not self-revealing. That is, you can’t debunk a claim simply by calling it a lie and pointing to relevant evidence, precisely because a lot of that evidence will itself be contentious. Facts don’t sit out there in the world waiting to be discovered. They exist at the centre of a web of overlapping observations, judgments and inferences, all of which are themselves open to challenge. Fact-checking will never be as principled and disinterested as we would like.
But a bigger problem with the effort to truth-squad our way back to fact-based politics is it misunderstands the way political persuasion works. Successful politicians don’t win over the electorate by giving them a set of plausible facts that in turn motivate a set of policies, they sell them on an attractive narrative. The best politicians, from Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, are storytellers.
To see why this matters, just look at two of the statements that PolitiFact called “pants on fire” — that is, the most bald-faced lies made during the campaign. From Mitt Romney came the claim that “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare cheque.” For his part, Obama said Romney “backed a bill that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.”
Neither claim has a shred of truth. But why then would they make them?
Because both claims speak to broader narratives about how each side of the great American partisan divide sees the other. So, maybe Obama’s welfare plan wouldn’t eliminate the work requirement. But isn’t it generally true that Democrats are in favour of redistribution from wealth creators to wealth takers? And maybe Romney didn’t actually back a bill that would outlaw all forms of abortion. Yet is it not the case that Republicans continue to wage a relentless campaign against a woman’s right to choose? Think back to Reagan’s nose-stretcher about the Chicago welfare queen. She didn’t exist. But the reason the story had such traction was that it fed into growing anxieties over the expansion of the American welfare state and the loss of a sense of personal responsibility.
Political leadership is a form of storytelling, and no amount of mere fact-checking will ever serve to counteract a narrative that a significant mass of the public feels in its bones to be true. That is why the most effective antidote to the poison politics of truthiness is ridicule.
It is no coincidence that the term truthiness was coined in 2006 by the comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the wildly popular talk show The Colbert Report. Along with Jon Stewart (host of the sister program The Daily Show) Colbert has become one of the most influential political analysts in America.
Truth should always remain a regulative ideal of political life. Facts matter, and fact-checking is still an important function of the independent press. But in the age of post-truth politics, it is important to remember that the guiding light of reason is the satirist. The literary devices of irony, sarcasm, and parody are the mechanisms through which grand political narratives are exposed not as false, but as laughable, preposterous or absurd.
Andrew Potter is the Citizen’s managing editor.
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