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Jennifer Wheeler Headshot

Inoculation to Lies

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Where is the fever? At every turn of this election season new lies have been injected into the veins of American democratic politics, and the first presidential debate is no exception. When Romney denied that his $5 trillion tax cut would raise the deficit or demand tax increases on the middle class, when he said that President Obama is cutting $716 billion from Medicare he was misleading Americans. Where is the public rage that is an antidote to these, and so many other lies that have infected our body politic? We know that party leaders and pundits are willfully misleading us - fact checkers and opposing parties have been quick to point it out throughout the election season, and Mitt Romney is merely the most recent culprit. But the fever, the virulent response by voters required to shut down the lies and preserve some semblance of self-governance, is totally absent.

By my diagnosis, that uncomfortable but very powerful defense mechanism is dormant because we have been slowly and certainly inoculated to the virus; dishonesty has permeated our civic ethos. The result is a democratic crisis that places the few in a great position of power over the complacent many. Neither by accident nor by design, but nonetheless by this four-step formula, we have become immune and disengaged:

Step 1: Decrease sensitivity by immersing in lies. Who cares anymore? The lot of them are liars. Dishonesty is so prevalent that we are not only desensitized to the lie, but we have actually accepted a sort of caveat emptor disclaimer. We expect to be lied to and misled because in a marketplace of information (or infotainment) we consume at our own risk. Responsibility to use public airwaves to serve the public? Soooo 20th century. Nearly half of us aren't even going to vote because we are disillusioned by the system.

Step 2: Make easily distractible by providing an overabundance of sound-bite news. If it can't be said in 140 characters, it's not worth reading. Who wants to read the Affordable Care Act when its contents can be captured in a ten point list with a really cool graphic that's easy to share with friends on Facebook? There are tweets to read, messages to send, live feeds to watch and headlines to scroll through; saying it in a thousand pages when it can be said in just one seems the bloated result of overindulgence.

Step 3: Erode ability to reason by killing civics education. Principles of reasoned analysis? What? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and a general crisis in public education, thinking critically and engaging in meaningful debate has given way to standardized test-driven material. More importantly, there is an organized and systematic attack on these skills exemplified by the terrifying Texas GOP party platform released this summer which includes this:
"We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

In a country that would require an informed and deliberative populace to properly serve its democratic principles, it is no wonder that the tools for civic engagement are increasingly reserved for the powerful, college-educated elite.

Step 4: Make partisan loyalty outweigh willingness to reason. My favorite pundit said it. Turning off the brain now. I don't want to compare Romneycare to Obamacare by looking at the respective plans, I just want to be told that they are the same or different. My guy on the news, he's the one I trust, I see him every night, I look into his eyes, and I trust him. He says the stimulus didn't work, it must have failed. Wait, what? It's not true? Plugging my ears...lalalalalalalalala.

There you have it, a perfectly balanced, foolproof formula for inoculating the public to political lies. Deluge, distract, disable, deter. Once inoculated, even those who seek the truth are disincentivized from acting: if the only people listening are those who already share the same views, what's the point?

It is true that politicians have never been celebrated for their veracity or scrupulousness. In the United States mudslinging and hyperbolic denunciations can be traced all the way back to the election of 1800 when Adams called Jefferson an atheist (he wasn't) and Jefferson called Adams a monarchist (he wasn't; well, maybe a little bit). In the 20th century we were battered by conspiracies like Iran-Contra and Watergate that were hugely consequential. The American public was betrayed by an executive branch whose lies served to cover up illegal arms sales, funding of counter-revolutionaries explicitly forbidden by Congress, illegal wiretapping and burglary. But these big lies were scandals - the public got angry, they cared.

Recently, the dishonesty has become more pervasive and we have become more complacent. It is the quiet in the midst of a lie-laden election season - the absence of a fever - that signals a very dangerous turning point; disengaging from politics is a sure way to surrender our right to self-governance. As constituents, our representatives have a duty to push a legislative agenda that reflects, that represents, our policy goals not their policy goals. This requires us to be informed, to deliberate and to reason, a task that is impossible when we are inoculated to lies.

Can we reverse the status quo? Perhaps, but it is going to take a lot more than fact-checking. Every public and private school should be teaching its students that caring about politics and about the truth is not a choice but an absolute responsibility. In response to Mitt Romney's excellent debate performance but very dishonest characterization of his policies, I don't want to see a quiet, calm reaction by the public. I want to see voters demonstrate through action that they reject deceitful rhetoric and empty posturing. The health of our country, the lifeblood that flows through the veins of an enduring democracy, demands that we treat lies as toxic.

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