There's a mythology around politics, one that sees the ballot box and the floor of Congress as a battleground of ideas. In this star-spangled arena, progressives and conservatives square off in the competition to prove the worth of their opposing philosophies and the merit of their plans. Of course it's not all high-minded rhetoric and reasoned discourse, there are selfish motives and personal ambitions, angry outbursts and plain old mistakes, but in the end the best ideas win out in the great experiment that is America! Cue the brass section and wave the flag.
The truth is it was probably never that way. It doesn't take much prompting for people to produce examples of nastiness in campaigns back Jefferson and Adams, or to revisit instances of corruption from decades or centuries gone by. We all know that Mr. Smith is a fictional character.
However, just because it's possible to unearth grizzled examples of ugliness doesn't mean that the current season is not unique. Uniquely dangerous. And what makes it dangerous is the pretense that we're still in that fantasyland were ideas arm wrestle for history's approval. In fact, that time is long past. It's not even that what's now coming from the right consists of 100% emotional, fear-based appeals without a factual basis. In 2012, a campaign of suggestive fear-mongering seems almost quaint.
It's that the Republicans have staked out a position that requires that they lie, 24/7, 365. Not shade the facts their way. Not put their own spin on the situation. Lie. Big, sloppy, and constantly.
The lies go beyond instantly dismissible claims like President Obama being the "food stamp president" (why you have to go back one whole administration to discover that more people joined the food stamp ranks under Bush than Obama, but then the Republicans don't seem to remember Bush in any case). The blatant lies extend through every aspect of the Republican platform, such as it is. The simple reason is that the Republicans have no ideas left, at least no ideas that have not been tested and proven to be failures again, and again, and again.
The economy didn't just crash under a Republican president, it crashed under Republican policies. It crashed with low taxes. It crashed with deregulated markets. It crashed with huge restrictions on union activity. It crashed with massive cuts in environmental regulations. It crashed with lowered trade barriers. It crashed with big fat Pentagon spending.
They got what they wanted. They got CEOs with no limits on their wealth. They got banks with no limits on their "creativity." They got trade agreements that guaranteed manufacturing could be moved to the dirtiest, cheapest, most desperate source available. They got massive cuts in capital gains taxes and equally large boosts in the wealth they could pass along in estates. They got everything they said would make us all wealthy. They got record oil and gas drilling. They got record giveaways of public land. They got everything they said would create jobs. They got the middle class to shoulder more, more, more of the burden so that those beautiful job creators would be free to work their magic.
They can't say the economy crashed because taxes went up, because they didn't. They can't say that the economy crashed because there was a raft of new regulation, because there wasn't. They can't blame it on "union thugs" or Saul Alinsky or the guy who writes Happy Holidays cards at Hallmark. They can't blame it on a president who was elected when the world was already in free fall. Only, of course they do. They say it because they have no choice.
For the same reason that they have to maintain that global warming is the creation of a conspiracy of scientists, and that evolution is a conspiracy of other scientists, and that gay marriage is a threat to "traditional" marriage. They have to lie about the threat of illegal immigrants. Lie about the state of the national debt. Lie about the effects of the President's health care plan. They have to lie, because lies are all they have left.
They certainly can't admit the truth about the economy. They can't admit that they did it. Own it. That their policies directly caused the worst economic failure in American history. Strike that. Make it "the greatest failure in American history since the last time that these same policies were tried." But then, they've been lying about that bit of history for years.
The truth is that the Republicans have nothing to offer. Not even anything that looks like a governing philosophy. Conservatism has moved out of the ranks of political theories and simply become a cult; one that requires that certain phrases be mouthed, that certain hatreds be nourished, and that purity be maintained regardless of cost. That schism with reality is increasingly large and increasingly obvious. They try to paper over that gap by dismissing little things like science, reason, history. Real science fails to support their contentions, so they have to write it off. Reason doesn't work for them, so any question must be met with red-faced indignity — every question a gotcha question. Real history is full of warts, quirks, and unfortunate truths that don't fit their ritualized beliefs. So they have to try to rewrite history, giving us rewrite Reagan who never raised a tax or increased a debt, rewrite FDR who created the issues he actually solved, rewrite Lincoln who championed the Confederate cause, rewrite founding fathers who never owned slaves, never supported government regulation of the economy, never wavered in their ardent love for a form of religiosity that didn't yet exist. Tricorner hats are the new tinfoil.
The real danger isn't that someone might listen to the Republicans—anyone who lies long enough and loud enough can always find an audience, especially when that someone has three quarters of the television media and ninety+ percent of radio. The danger is that we might forget that they're lying. Too often Democrats, including this president, have felt that the best way to handle Republican fantasies is to compromise with them. You can't compromise reality, no no matter how loud the lies.