In the Sunday (1/22) NY Times, a column called “Room for Debate” takes up the question of why politicians get away with lying. The basic assumption embedded in the question and promoted by the several experts called upon to opine for this column is that lying is bad. It is a given that there should be negative consequences for lying. I believe that in the new political paradigm, this assumption is wrong. Among conservative politicians lying is a badge of courage, it is a clarion call to the base.
They would never call it lying (lying is a sin, after all) - playing fast and loose with the truth and facts, discounting science (climate change, evolution) and lambasting the media as biased (that bias tends to be toward truth and fact, as lame as the media have been in upholding that principle) and government - but the behavior exhibited most consistently by conservative politicians in which claims are based on blatant falsehoods and distortions of fact serve a very distinct purpose. Their lies give comfort to citizens who are frightened by science, whose beliefs are challenged by the institutions of truth - science, education, government, the media. Lying is a sub-sonic language with which conservative politicians communicate to their base. They are saying "We're like you."
And as George Lakoff in his piece in the column suggests, it is their self-proclaimed commitment to a greater moral objective that gives them cover, that absolves them from the lesser sin of lying. Their lies are promoting a greater (though unspecified) moral principle. I would go farther. The lies in fact proclaim their moralistic stance, like a gang-member's secret hand signal. The irony is that the morals themselves no longer matter - see Newt Gingrich. All that's required is a claim of a morals-based stance, which the lying paradoxically reinforces. The moral principles themselves remain unexamined, unimportant, really.
This lying is an outgrowth of the single-issue conservative political model that has motivated American conservatives since the Red Scare of the fifties. Anti-communism, anti-welfare, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and now anti-truth - all have served the same function, to identify who is a member of the clan.
This is not to say that liberal politicians don’t also lie and bend the truth. They do indeed. But their lies serve a different purpose, and liberals do it much more guardedly, still trying to keep their exaggerations or distortions tethered to some notion of defensible logic, still operating under the antique notion that lying is wrong. Conservatives lie with gusto and exuberance, they flaunt their inaccuracies, they refuse all entreaties to consider alternate views or countervailing evidence. They refuse to participate in discourse, which is of course the most fundamental unit of governance. They have thus essentially shut down the government, severely restricting the government’s ability to make effective policy and thus achieving one of their most cherished goals, drowning government, through the simple act of lying.
Clearly it is a mistake to argue whether politicians lie. We all do it to one degree or another. But it is also a mistake to assume that there are negative consequences for lying, at least among conservative politicians. In fact, lying seems to be a winning strategy for conservatives, if Newt Gingrich, John Boener, Paul Ryan, or any other high-(f)lying conservative politician of the day is to be considered. And this does not bode well for the future of our republic.