George Orwell’s cynicism about the world of politics was never expressed more eloquently than in his suggestion that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Certainly, Orwell had a point – to some extent, politicians have always played fast and loose with the truth. That is not to say that all elected representatives are heretical fraudsters, determined to control our thought processes with deliberate untruths fuelled by malicious intentions. It might sound counter-intuitive but, more often than not, our politicians are probably telling us the truth (in democratic countries, at least).
But the fact remains. Throughout history and in countries across the world, political life is littered with inaccuracy, hyperbole and distortion of varying degrees of seriousness. Now, with just five months to go until the first Republican presidential primary, the three frontrunners seem to be doing their utmost to reach a new pinnacle in political fabrication.
The least serious untruths in politics are mere factual inaccuracies – unintentional untruths resulting from poor research or muddled figures. Despite the appearance of some politicians, they are not robots, and we can hardly harangue them for occasionally getting their facts wrong. However, when usually polished professionals make glaring gaffes, there are often amusing consequences – as Michelle Bachmann discovered to her embarrassment when she wished Elvis Presley a happy birthday in front of an enthusiastic crowd… on the anniversary of his death.
Next, there is the famous `misspeak’. Misspeaking is perhaps most associated with Hillary Clinton who, having claimed that on a visit to Bosnia in 1996 she came under sniper fire as soon as she stepped off the plane, subsequently claimed that she had “misspoken” when footage emerged of the then-First Lady calmly emerging from Air Force One and casually walking from the runway.
The Republican campaign has provided us with a number of examples of misspeaking, such as Mitt Romney’s assertion that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King at a civil rights rally in the 1960s. George Romney did indeed take part in a civil rights rally at which MLK was present – but the two never met and certainly did not march together at the rally.
Acts of distortion are more serious. When politicians begin to distort the truth, they are deliberately concealing the true version of events for political gain – or, more often than not, to prevent any harm coming to their reputation. When rumours of tensions between then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown began to emanate from Whitehall, the government’s spin machine threw the entirety of its considerable muscle behind attempts to deny the existence of an increasingly damage rift.
Day after day, Cabinet ministers were trotted out on political talk shows and radio programmes to assure us that relations at the very top of government were nothing short of blissful. We were lied to so frequently that many of us actually began to believe that the rumours were concocted.
As recently as January 2005 – by which time their relationship was well beyond breaking point – one contributor to the BBC News website remarked with authority, “the only Blair-Brown rift is the one the press has cooked up so that the country will go against them.” Of course, following the demise of New Labour we now know for certain that the rift, far from an invention, was deeper than we could have ever imagined.
As a country, we do not like being lied to, and especially not repeatedly. For years there was a blatant, unashamed cover up to prevent the truth from coming out. But was this malicious distortion? Clearly not.
Not a single member of the electorate lost faith in the government as a result. On the contrary, we were reassured that the government were in control and that Blair and Brown had the country’s best interests at heart – even if, with hindsight, that is somewhat dubious. For this reason, I would argue that distortion, whilst undesirable, is in some cases acceptable. As you might imagine, the Republican presidential candidates have similarly distorted facts throughout the campaign (far too many to even begin to consider here), but is this not simply the nature of politics? Undesirable, even objectionable, but potentially permissible.
So far, not so serious. Yes, the Republican campaign has featured numerous incidences of misspeaking and minor distortion, but nothing serious. Not, that is, until we look at the outright lies that have been scattered liberal throughout the campaign. On talk shows, in televised debates and even in conversations with ordinary Americans – Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann have each told lies as outrageous as reports in the North Korean state media that Kim Jong-il once shot a score of 38 under par on a regulation 18 hole golf course – including five holes in one.
According to the website Politifact.com – which analyses the veracity of politician’s statements using a scale that ranges from ‘true’ to ‘pants on fire’ – the frontrunners in the race to take on Barack Obama next November seem to have completely discarded any notion of a commitment to the truth. Politifact concludes that less than half of Romney’s statements during the campaign have been either `true’ or `mostly true’, yet shockingly he comes out on top when compared with his rivals at just 46%.
By the same measure, Perry scores 32% and Bachmann a frankly embarrassing 11%. Indeed, a majority of Bachmann’s statements are afforded `pants on fire’ status. When he wasn’t branding social security “a Ponzi scheme” and climate change a lie, Rick Perry was making other wildly inaccurate claims such as his assertion that Barack Obama’s stimulus package “created zero jobs”. As for Romney, he has repeatedly argued that America “is inches away from no longer having a free economy”.
These terrifying statistics are proof of endemic misrepresentation of the facts throughout an admittedly bruising campaign. The fact that some of the most recognisable faces in the Grand Old Party are prepared to lie so blatantly to achieve their ends and play to the Tea Party faithful has to be a tremendous cause for concern in US politics – especially if the victor is able to pose a genuine threat to Barack Obama’s presidency in 12 months time.
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