Thursday, September 18, 2008

Truthiness in Presidential Politics

The two major presidential campaigns (yes, there are four other people running for president this year) have little regard for truth. The problem with this is that even though the media sometimes expose the lies, the campaigns keep repeating them and the public believes they are truth.

Campaigns (especially the GOP approach -- note that McCain's staffers are Rove proteges) live by one simple rule -- never underestimate the gullibility of the American voter.

This is from today's New York Times:
Some fact-check organizations could be forgiven if they get disheartened about the value of their work — but not just because Mr. Rove has little use for them.

It seems that despite all the exposure of lies, the campaigns just go right on repeating them, as if those whoppers had never been debunked in the first place.

Just look at the roster of statements debunked — and still repeated — by Mr. McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, his running mate: Mr. Obama will raise taxes on the middle class; Mr. Obama wants to teach sex education to children; Ms. Palin did not seek earmarks as governor; Ms. Palin told Congress “thanks but no thanks” for the Bridge to nowhere.

Mr. Obama has also misstated facts and twisted words — saying Mr. McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years, for example — but examples from him are fewer and farther between.

Asked for comment about why the McCain campaign would repeat assertions that have been debunked, Tucker Bounds, a spokesman, suggested that these assertions were not inaccurate but were "legitimate and factual criticisms" that the Obama campaign was simply labeling as lies.

There are plenty of systematic efforts these days at fact checking, notably by, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, at the St. Petersburg Times, and The Fact Checker at The Washington Post, along with assessments from other news organizations, including The New York Times.

“In the past, we let candidates get away with exaggerations and falsehoods, but not any more,” said Bill Adair, the Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and editor of “And we’re not shy about making a call. When they say something wrong, we say it’s false or even pants-on-fire wrong.”

But why, with all this fact checking, and with traditional news organizations increasingly emboldened to call out the candidates, do candidates repeat inaccuracies?

The answer is partly campaign strategy — the McCain campaign has made much of the “us versus them” war with the media, and throwing sand in the Obama engine is a great distraction — but it also reflects an understanding of the psychology of how people absorb information.

If candidates feel free to assert falsehoods and repeat them, it is generally because voters will believe them and the candidates can get away with it.

This is why the political system in this country is irreparably broken. Most of the voters are idiots and as long as that is true, there is no reason for candidates to run clean and honest campaigns.

We seem to get the candidates and the campaigns we deserve.

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