The incentive to lie

As is the norm when a group of Republican candidates get together for a high-profile event, there was quite a bit of lying in last night’s debate. I don’t mean instances in which candidates fudge some details, tell half-truths, get factual claims wrong, or exaggerate for effect. I’m talking about pure, obvious, unadulterated lies — stuff the candidates know to be false, but say anyway.

Kevin Drum had a great item today, noting that this is “a real problem for liberals.”

Sure, we cherry pick evidence, we spin world events, and we impose our worldview when we talk about policy. Everyone does that. But generally speaking, our opinion leaders don’t go on national TV, look straight into the camera, and just outright lie about stuff. Theirs do. And you know, if you’d been told over and over that Obamacare meant getting government permission every time you want to go to the doctor; if you’d been told over and over that the economy is in bad shape because a tidal wave of regulations are strangling American business; and if you’d been told over and over that stimulus spending didn’t create one single job — well, what would you think about Barack Obama’s presidency? Not much, I imagine.

It’s awfully hard to fight stuff this brazen. Everyone understands that politicians fudge details and engage in partisan hypocrisy. All part of the game. But most of us don’t expect them to flat out lie. So when they do, we figure there must be something to it. It’s a pretty powerful formula, especially when the mainstream press no longer seriously polices this stuff, and isn’t much believed even when it does. The answer remains frustratingly elusive.

Agreed. I tend to have a pretty sunny disposition, but this is the sort of thing that has me banging my head against my desk.

That last point Kevin made — about the media — strikes me as especially important. Republicans would probably be less inclined to lie if they thought there would be consequences for their dishonesty. Lacking character and integrity, they need an incentive to be honest.

Ideally, major news organizations would offer that incentive. Before Mitt Romney lies about President Obama “apologizing for America,” a little voice would echo in his head saying, “If you tell this lie again, voters will hear about it, and no one wants to vote for a known liar.”

But that doesn’t happen precisely because Romney and his cohorts knows he can lie with impunity. Some news outlets will run fact-check items that most of the public won’t see, and many who do come across these pieces won’t believe them anyway, since they’ve been told that the media is “liberal” and not to be trusted. It’s always been an underlying part of the campaign against media — if the right can discredit the referees, it’s that much easier to get away with wrongdoing.

Even for well-intentioned members of the public, there’s very likely a sense that the lies might have some truth in them. And through constant repetition and reinforcement from like-minded outlets like Fox News and talk radio, folks start to consider the falsehoods credible simply because they’ve heard them so many times, which creates an incentive to tell even bigger lies.

What’s to be done when the discourse is broken? I don’t know, but I’m open to suggestion.