A demoralized Andrew Sullivan reader:
For the last six years, I’ve watched a fear-mongering fool manipulate us, ruin our standing in the world and abuse our principles. It’s been hard to feel good about our country. But when Obama won Iowa and surged in the New Hampshire polls I thought I’d underestimated us. For the first time in my lifetime, my cynical generation was turning out heavily to vote. We were choosing, above all else, to be inspired.
Now, the Clinton campaign has gradually and expertly eviscerated him, and it turns out we’re not that country. We’re still easily manipulated; we’re still scared; and we’re still a little racist. It’s hard not to resent her for that.
I’m not an American, but I feel just as demoralized at present.
Another quote. This time from Dick Cheney, as White House Chief of Staff, in 1976:
Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.
Are the Clintons likewise unprincipled? Sam Boyd asks the right question, and supplies the right answer:
Does Clinton really think Obama is a corrupt Chicago pol who secretly hates abortion and wants to cut social security and Medicare? No.
This is exactly what I’ve been thinking. I asked myself: Do the Clintons really believe that Obama waffled in his opposition to the Iraq war? Of course not! They know this is a clear point of differentiation between Hillary’s candidacy and Barack’s: Clinton voted for the Iraq war while Obama stuck his neck out by opposing it, at a time when that was a politically unacceptable position. The principled and far-sighted stand which Obama took at the time had emerged as one of the key strengths of his campaign. The Clintons knowingly — cynically — distorted his record to take that asset away from him.
Do the Clintons honestly believe that Obama approves of specific Reagan-era policies: on Social Security, minimum wage, and Medicare? They are perfectly aware that Obama said no such thing but they’re eager to put those words in his mouth.
Democracy relies on the good faith of those who campaign for public office. Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.
It’s as simple as that, and it matters that much.
Hilzoy argues that the Clintons are displaying contempt for voters: “manipulat[ing] them into casting votes they might not cast if people were not telling them lies.”
The Clinton campaign apparently thought that presenting Hillary Clinton herself, and saying true things about Obama, might not be enough to convince people to vote for her. …
Lying in an election is basically a way of saying: we know how you ought to vote, and if we can’t get you to vote that way by presenting you with facts and arguments, or even with truthful but emotionally shaded appeals, then we will get you to vote our way by telling you things that are not true.
This is democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Democracy cannot prosper if those who campaign for public office subscribe to Cheney’s dictum: “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”
Hilzoy continues by presenting an important thesis: lying to voters “undermines democracy by placing intolerable burdens on citizens”:
I think that it is our duty as citizens to learn enough to cast informed votes, and that this requires both following the news to some extent and also acquiring enough background knowledge (e.g., of economics) to be able to assess what people say.
However, I do not think that it ought to be our duty as citizens to become complete political junkies, the sorts of people who follow each and every twist and turn in a Presidential campaign. Some of us are like that … but I cannot see any reason at all why everyone should be.
But when candidates tell the kinds of lies that the Clintons have been telling, they place citizens in a position in which the only way to know what is going on is to become political junkies. Being merely informed is not enough: you have to be the sort of person who actually remembers the article from 2004 that Bill Clinton was referring to when he said that Obama had changed his position on the war, and so forth.
It’s like the tobacco companies’ attempts to confuse people by coming up with research that seemed to show that smoking was harmless. The strategy is to sow enough doubt that people who are not willing to slog through the science, the interminable debates about the methodological deficiencies of this or that study, etc., etc., etc., are likely to come away with a vague sense that the case that smoking is bad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is designed to leave people with two options: either spend an awful lot of time working through the science, or be misled.
In so doing, it asks a lot of ordinary people who have lives to lead: it prevents them from just reading stuff, forming a more or less correct view, and acting accordingly.
That’s a brilliant analysis. And the tobacco company illustration is a good one. But in fact, we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing in recent years.
Climate change is a parallel issue. Our society places great trust in the scientific method of separating fact from prejudice. Now we have a clear scientific consensus with respect to climate change: but for some unaccountable reason, the public remains confused and sceptical. I wonder how that happened? Could it be that people with a vested interest have engaged in a disinformation campaign, just like the one previously carried out by the tobacco companies?
Likewise the invasion of Iraq. Did the Bush administration invade Iraq because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? Or was it because of Saddam’s close ties to al Qaeda? Or was it because of his horrific human rights abuses? Or was it for some other, undisclosed motive? The strategy is obvious: Sow plenty of confusion about your motives, and do whatever you will.
Again with respect to torture. Pretend that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were committed by rogue soldiers. Euphemise torture as “enhanced interrogation”. Talk about the ticking time bomb scenario a lot, even though it is irrelevant to the actual practice of torture. Gloss over the fact that you’re torturing suspects; refer to them all “terrorists”. (Guilty until proven innocent, by which time they’ve already been tortured.) “Lose” videotapes of “interrogation” sessions.
First they said, “We don’t torture.” Then they said, “We do those things, but those things aren’t torture.” Then they defended torture as a necessary evil. Then they rebranded torture as a good.
Hilzoy is right: the strategy is to place an intolerable burden on voters. Keep the people so confused, so off balance, that they can’t separate the facts from the lies. Reduce voters to ignorance and thus impotence.
But the only people who do such things are the dirty Republicans, right? And not just any Republicans, but the discredited administration of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.
That’s why I began this post with the quote from Andrew Sullivan’s demoralized reader. It isn’t just the Bush administration anymore. It’s the Clintons. And the Democrats in general, if they are manipulated into nominating Hillary, which is now the likeliest outcome of the primaries.
Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.
Democracy cannot prosper unless voters are clever enough to see what’s happening — and reject the politicians who play these corrosive games.