Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Truth in Politics: De-Frauding American Politics

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  With those words, an Army lawyer took Senator Joe McCarthy to task and helped end McCarthy’s destructive un-American witch-hunt.  The time has come to say the same to the Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of the chattering class and stop their vile perversion of our right to free speech.

American politics has always been rife with misleading statements and at times outright falsehoods.   Mendacity just seems to be an ever-present aspect of politics.  But during the past decade, and especially this past year, things have taken an especially nasty turn, becoming so aggressive and incendiary as to pose a real threat to the health and well-being of our nation’s democracy.

What has become of this country?   Time reported that a “plurality of Arkansans think that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.” The health care reform debate was hijacked by fears that the law would create “death panels” and that it contained “Hitler-like” policies. The silly fear that the reform legislation posed the threat of creeping socialism was by comparison quaint.

These are all incredulous positions that fly in the face of reality.   Why then do so many Americans, not just a small radical fringe, hold these beliefs so adamantly?  The answer is clear … political commentators they respect, such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, have taken to extreme demagoguery to create a rabid, angry voter block.  Perhaps even more damning, not a single Republican member of Congress has refuted these scurrilous accusations.  Some old-line conservative commentators did call these lies for what they are, but unfortunately, they don’t carry much weight these days.

If actors on the political scene are so callous with the truth, if they feel no ethical constraints, if they have no shame, we have reached a point where the American people need a Truth In Politics law to protect them.

To this suggestion, both liberals and conservatives will no doubt react with horror and raise the flag of the Constitution’s 1st Amendment right of free speech.   But the right of free speech is not absolute.  Courts have long recognized that one cannot cry “fire” in a crowded theater because of the threat to the public safety that would result.  Inciting to riot is also not protected by the 1st Amendment. 

More on point is the Truth in Advertising law that protects consumers from deceptive advertising.  Specifically, under Federal law, advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive; there must be evidence to back up any claims made; and ads cannot be unfair.  The law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Why is this important exception made to the Constitution’s right of free speech?   The reasoning behind this, and other consumer protection laws, is that the consumer is at a disadvantage vis a vis the businesses that cater to them … in this instance because they don’t have the ability to reasonably determine for themselves the truthfulness of advertising claims and that they therefore might make purchase decisions that either actually cause harm or are otherwise detrimental to them.

If consumers can be protected from false and deceptive advertising, surely the general public should be protected from false and deceptive claims in political statements and advertising that are “likely to mislead and be detrimental.” The danger here is twofold … first, citizens will cast their vote or take other action in ways they wouldn’t if they knew the truth, acting contrary to their interests … such ads are thus another type of fraud used to alter election outcomes and policy decisions; second, these incendiary falsehoods are creating an emotional angry atmosphere making meaningful substantive debate on the issues impossible, thereby stifling the lifeblood of American democracy … the marketplace of ideas.

Those opposed to a Truth in Politics law will say that there is still ample opportunity for individual citizens to determine the truth, that public debate exposes all falsehoods.  That’s the point of free speech.  There’s even a website, factcheck.org, that enables people to check the accuracy of statements made by politicians.

But this argument does not reflect the polarized nature of today’s politics and body politic.  In today’s world, if you are on one side, and someone on the other side says that your leader is lying, there’s no chance of that being heard or believed.   Fact-checking is only done by people who are rational, who are seeking the truth.  Since so much of today’s debate appeals to the emotions, reasoned thought is a scarce commodity.

Opponents will also say that falsehoods and appeals to emotion are nothing new in American politics. While that is certainly true, statements spread at a different pace and depth in today’s information age.  The impact of media political commentators, the internet, and You Tube videos is such that a new phrase has been coined … a charge is said to “have gone viral” because it has spread so rapidly and so broadly.   While charges can be, and have been, refuted, there is no chance for the damage to be stemmed.

No, much as it goes against my grain and the grain of most Americans, we have reached that point where to save our democracy, we must enact a Truth in Politics law.  We can no longer depend on ethics or rational thought to save us from the demagogues.

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