Almost everyone knows that the American political system is in bad shape. But way too few seem to understand what’s gone wrong and what is needed to set it right.
I assume that readers here understand that people on the right have been misled over the course of a generation into an almost entirely false picture of reality. But what seems much rarer is an understanding of the role that Liberal America has played in allowing that current destructive political dynamic to take hold.
One important aspect of the liberal contribution to America’s problems is visible, I believe, in an otherwise valuable piece on Salon.com (to which Lowell called our attention in this morning’s news summary). The piece’s author is Avi Rabin-Havt, and its title is “Lie big, lie often, never back down: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the real reason why right-wing lies stick.”
The piece describes well how the lie about Obamacare setting up “death panels” began and spread to degrade the whole political process around healthcare reform. And it makes briefer mention of a second case of successful lying, i.e. the rise of Donald Trump.
All that is important stuff. But then the piece lets us down.
The author’s complaint is that too much attention gets paid to the lies, and this attention only helps to cement the lies in national consciousness. The author’s recommendation is expressed thus: “The lesson for the rest of us (and the media) is we cannot give these liars their undeserved public platforms.”
I think that is altogether the wrong lesson to draw. The problem isn’t that too much attention gets paid to these liars, but that it’s the wrong kind of attention.
This point can be illustrated by a passage from a piece I published – as an op/ed in December of 2009 as an op/ed) in the Baltimore Sun – in the form of an open letter to President Obama:
[Y]ou’ve denied some of their lies [I wrote to President Obama, back during his first year in office], but you’ve not called out the lying.
When Sarah Palin and her ilk accuse you of supporting death panels, and you respond by saying, “That’s not true, there are no death panels,” the national conversation centers on the question: “Are there death panels?” But if you say, “It’s unpatriotic for Republicans to degrade our national discourse with fear-mongering lies,” then the media will focus on the question: “Are the Republican peddling lies?”
The first question undermines you; the second discredits your opposition. (Emphasis added here.)
Why is our political system so sick? Well, it’s true that, as the article shows, one part of the answer is that the Republican side of the battle is continually and intensely on the attack, with no scruples about using lies as their weapon.
But another part of the answer is that Liberal America and its leaders seem almost incapable of going on the attack. (And the liberal side is all too often clueless about how and where to direct such attacks that get made.)
Another of Liberal America’s self-weakening tendencies on display when Rabin-Havt declares that “The post-truth landscape that Trump, McCaughey and others take advantage of is fueled by a bifurcated media structure, which allows misinformation to rapidly spread in ideological echo chambers…”
In this talk of “bifurcation” – and of “ideological echo chambers” in the plural – I hear a subtle manifestation of that well-known liberal desire to appear even-handed. The piece itself is all about the ingrained dishonesty of one side of our political divide. Meanwhile, is there any evidence whatever that – on the Democratic side — there is any more lying than the traditional American political norm? Not that I know of.
So the problem is not the bifurcation itself. The rise of the lie is not a two-sided problem. It is that on one side – the Republican side, with that Party in league with the media components of the right-wing political force – there has been a deliberate cultivation of the lie, combined with the creation of a right-wing bubble effectively impermeable to outside voices speaking the truth.
The problem is basically asymmetric: there is only one “ideological echo chamber” that specializes in lies. So, in view of that basic asymmetry, what is the point of speaking about our problem in terms that suggest symmetry.
Liberals have been enculturated to regard “evenhandedness” as a universal virtue. Supposedly, it is always a sign of fairness and the willingness to transcend “partisanship.” But when a situation is fundamentally asymmetrical, such “evenhandedness” –“both sides do it”—is really a serious fault.
Indeed, such evenhanded speech promulgates falsehood as importantly as the deliberate lies on the right.