Does Truth Matter?
Most people believe that Mitt Romney won the October 3 debate and this entails that, in practical terms, he did win it. After all, one wins a political debate by getting the majority to believe that one has won. As such, victory is defined by the what people believe.
Romney and Obama were both accused of “stretching” the truth during the debate. The objective evidence indicates that both candidates intentional said things that are not true. Or, as normal folks would put it, they lied.
Those defending their man noted that this is the practice of politics. While this is clearly a case of the common practice fallacy (that is, attempting to justify a practice by claiming it is a common one) the general acceptance of this raises questions about whether truth matters in politics at all. In fact, one of the students in my ethics class asked me if an honest person could even be elected. While I do think that this is possible, I am not entirely sure that this view is well-founded. It might simply be a case of wishful thinking.
One thing I find fascinating about this lying is that both men obviously knew that their claims would be fact checked and that the results would make the news. Apparently the fact that lies would be noted and exposed had no effect on the honesty of the two men. This suggests that they believe that this exposure will have no effect on their chances. If so, the seem to be right about this.
One reason why they can lie with seeming impunity is that there are only two viable choices (Romney or Obama) and since both are lying, honesty cannot be a point of distinguishing between them.
Another reason is that most voters have already decided how they will vote and are committed to a degree that would be hard to shake. Mere lying about the facts does not appear to be enough to change minds.
Perhaps the main reason is that, as I have written in other posts, people hold to claims that match their ideology even in the face of refutation. In fact, the strength of a person’s belief in a claim that matches his ideology will generally increase when the claim is objectively refuted. As such, it makes bizarre sense that the candidates would lie so often: their follows are more likely to believe a refuted lie than an actual truth.
Despite the lying done by both parties, they are rather quick to accuse the other side of lying. For example, the latest job figures show that unemployment is at 7.8%. In response to this, some Republicans have claimed that this figure is a deceit. While some claim that the number is simply a fabrication by Obama’s people others claim that out of work Democrats have been lying about being employed to bring down the unemployment numbers.
While it is tempting to dismiss the Republicans’ accusation on the grounds that they are also liars, this would be a logical error. In any case, the unemployment percentage is an objective matter and is presumably one that can be checked independently. Of course, merely by making the accusation loudly and repeatedly, the Republicans will get their fellows to believe it and if it is shown that the figure really is 7.8%, they will even more strongly believe that it is not 7.8%. Naturally, convincing the already convinced will not amount to much in the election-a person just gets one vote regardless of how convinced they are. There is, of course, a chance that this will influence the few undecided voters which could be the reason behind the accusation. On the other side, many Democrats will be even more inclined to accept the number now that some Republicans are attacking it.
Another point about truth that has been raised is the matter of how Romney has switched his positions throughout the process, leading to the infamous etch-a-sketch analogy. While securing the nomination, Romney steered hard right but during the debate he tacked left towards the center. His defenders point out that this sort of thing is common practice and that all politicians facing a primary do the same thing. That is, they tack left or right for the primary and then head for the center for the general election. Naturally, the fact that it is a common practice does not make it correct.
In addition to the moral concern regarding deception (and this process is intentional deceit) there is also the concern that this practice makes it rather difficult for the voters to know what the person actually believes or what s/he will actually do.While it might be claimed that the voters should compensate by taking into account the tacking, that seems to amount to saying that the voters should be aware that what the politicians say is not the truth. Or, put another way, that the voters should not take anything they say seriously, yet they should still vote for them.
In the case of Romney, which is the real Mitt: the primary Mitt, the debate Mitt, the Massachusetts Mitt or some other Mitt we have not met yet? In the case of Obama, he has been in office for nearly four years, thus we have a good idea of what he is like.