My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin writes of how the latest Democratic attack ad directed against the Romney-Ryan proposals on Medicare is "just simply a pack of lies from top to bottom" and a confirmation of a journalist friend’s prediction as to how the Obama campaign will respond to an unusually strong Republican position on this issue: "They''ll Just Lie." Mr Levin goes on to explain in detail exactly wherein the ad lies — mainly by basing its claims on obsolete versions of Romney-Ryan plans rather than the current one, which certainly does look like a deliberate deception. But calling them out on the brazenness of this tactic seems unlikely to produce any shockwaves in today’s media environment. The charge of mendaciousness brought against one’s political opponents, once forbidden as un-Parliamentary language, is now so common that people hardly notice it.
Could that lamentable state of affairs have anything to do with the swiftness with which the Obama campaign alleged that Paul Ryan repeatedly lied in his speech to the Republican convention last night? The media were certainly not slow to pick that one up and run with it. James Downie, blogging for The Washington Post wrote of "Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech" and his "disdain for truth." Not to be outdone, Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic showed uncharacteristic restraint by putting a question mark after his headline: "The Most Dishonest Convention Speech ... Ever?" You might think that there would be some pretty stiff competition for that title, and yet it turns out that all these writers have to allege against our would-be Vice President, besides one factual inaccuracy that turns out not to be inaccurate at all, is not agreeing with themselves as to what information is germane to the point he is making and holding opinions contrary to their own. Perhaps I can’t see the "lies" only because my opinion more closely coincides with that of Mr Ryan than that of Messrs Cohn and Downie.
Or perhaps these gentlemen had some other reason for making the charge than a passionate concern for the truth. I have written — here, here and here for example — about what’s wrong with politicians and their allies in the media who resort to what was once known as the mentito. If one man dared to say "thou liest" to another, he did so in the knowledge that he would have either to apologize at once or fight him to the death. That remnant of the old honor culture, together with a natural fear of poisoning the wells of discourse, must have lived on in the folk memory of the West well into the 20th century. But by the dawn of the 21st, unanswered and unresented (in the old sense of resenting something by issuing a challenge) charges of lying were on their way to becoming the common currency of politics, as they were by the end of the last Bush Administration. As I wrote about the barrage of such charges brought against President George W. Bush in 2004, "The more people accuse each other of lying, the easier it becomes to lie. So long as each side routinely makes such claims about the other anyway, what incentive does anyone have to be scrupulous about the truth?"
Back then, however, I was assuming that people on both sides would want to be scrupulous about the truth. Could it be possible that they don’t? Could it be that bringing false charges of dishonesty about one’s opponent is a deliberate tactic, precisely to elicit defensiveness and counter-charges and thus to foster cynicism in the electorate? What better cover for one’s own lies if they contribute to making others believe that both sides lie routinely? My own strong impression is that people now do assume that lying, like the charge of lying, is a normal part of the political game and, therefore, that all such charges are heavily discounted. If you were to lie about the other guy’s supposed lies, you would help to ensure that such discounting would apply to your own as well as his. Such a policy would always benefit the more promiscuous and unscrupulous liar. But what a tangle such thoughts involve one in! For in order to make that case, one must charge the other guy with lying — which apart from being wrong in itself is, ex hypothesi, is just what he wants.