The sly wisdom behind campaign lies

S.F. Examiner File PhotoTune in this week for Melissa Griffin's coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte

On Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn took the stage to refute statements made by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan last week at his party’s convention. That came on the heels of statements by John Burton, the chairman of the Democratic Party of California, referring to the huge, demonstrable lies in Ryan’s speech as “the big lie” and invoking Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Burton has apologized, even if only in that empty “if you were offended” kind of way. But Ryan has not.

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In fact, the two biggest and favorite whoppers of the Republican Party — that President Barack Obama removed the work requirement for welfare recipients and is bilking old people out of $716 billion in Medicare benefits — remain lyrics to their theme song. And we can only assume that they continue to be uttered, and indeed were uttered in the first place, because the campaign believes they will be effective, despite being “counterfactual.”

Which brings us back to Burton’s assertion. Clunky, inappropriate, embarrassing for Democrats, his underlying idea seemed to be that the Mitt Romney-Ryan campaign is telling lies so colossal that the public would never believe anyone could lie about such things. That is the nature of the strategy behind “the big lie.”

In fairness, the Republican Party does not have the market cornered on fabrications. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers at Politifact have analyzed 403 of Obama’s statements and rated 27 percent of them “mostly false” or worse, with 1 percent “pants on fire.” Of 163 statements by Romney, 32 percent were “mostly false” or worse and 9 percent were rated “pants on fire.”

Media talking heads have been flabbergasted at the fibs and maybe someday a campaign operative will explain the perceived effectiveness of lies to all of us.

Rutgers University philosophy professor Jason Stanley opined last week in The New York Times that the real message isn’t about an opponent’s actual deeds or omissions. Using the example of the “Obama ended welfare work requirements” nonsense, Stanley posited that viewers knew it was false but heard the message loud and clear: “We don’t like lazy people on welfare.”  

Talking heads fret about whether we are in a post-factual campaign. More to the point: We are in a sub-factual campaign, where the most important message is the one sent to your gut.  

This is not to excuse either campaign from the moral and ethical duty to tell the truth. It is an explanation for why political theater — where politicians pretend to be people they aren’t and say words they don’t mean to communicate deeper truths — remains effective. In other words, stop trying to figure out whether George Clooney is really an emergency room doctor and focus on how he makes you feel.

And people wonder why Clint Eastwood was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. He imagined a conversation as a way to communicate his opposition to the war in Afghanistan and his disappointment with Obama. It wasn’t a lie so big that we believe it, but a lie so big we could see right through it. In many ways, it was the most honest speech yet.

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