Remember the old normal?
In the the old normal, the one most of us grew up in, lying was a deal-breaker. Lie repeatedly on a job application? You don't get the job. Lie after you're hired? You're fired.
So how is it possible that Mitt Romney can even be considered for the most important job in the world? How can Paul Ryan even be considered for the spot next in line? All politicians sometimes shade the truth, if only because they're human, but Romney and Ryan are operating on a whole new level: what Paul Krugman and others have called "post-truth politics." (For the breathtakingly many examples of Romney-Ryan dishonesty, in the interests of space I'll refer here to the yeoman's work done by Rachel Maddow Show producer and blogger Steve Benen.)
Since the vice presidential debate, much of the talk has been about Joe Biden's incredulous laughing at the claims Paul Ryan put forth. But as Matt Taibbi recently asked, why wasn't that the reaction of everyone?
The answer is that when it comes to honesty, we now have an extreme form of affirmative action: If you're a right-winger, you're allowed to lie.
There are honest conservatives, of course, and there are liberals who lie. But if a liberal lies, everyone, including the liar, accepts that lying is not a good thing to be caught doing. The same is no longer true for conservatives. On some level, everyone accepts that it's now just part of the package, whether it comes from from Romney and Ryan, Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh.
Lying has become more like a cultural characteristic than an ethical one.
For example, we often hear that Fox and MSNBC are equally biased, on the right and the left. This is roughly true. But Fox is also dishonest. MSNBC is not. An inaccuracy on MSNBC will be corrected, while on Fox it will be ignored, downplayed or, often, enthusiastically repeated. This difference goes unremarked, and the pretense continues that "Fox News" means that Fox actually provides news.
This is the new normal. Where the heck did it come from?
"From a bunch of lying jerks!" many will yell. But while the yelling may be satisfying, the answer is not: It's not likely that a whole bunch of people just happen to be lying jerks.
I believe the real story is more interesting, and more useful. Here's my stab at summarizing how cultural and economic factors came together to make this new normal predictable, if not inevitable:
1. The media got stuck in a "balance" trap. Since the late 19th century, mainstream American media outlets have been committed to objectivity, both as a matter of ethics and, at least as importantly, as a matter of money: there was a demand from business readers for reliable facts, and a demand from advertisers for avoiding offense.
Right-wingers discovered that this gave them a big advantage, so long as they were able to overcome any capacity for embarrassment. Ironically, it's because reporters are struggling to appear objective that you can lie your head off to them, as long as you do so confidently and consistently. "Balance" will then lead them to present a disagreement over, say, evolution vs. creationism, or climate change vs. climate change denial, as if the two sides had roughly equal claims. As Paul Krugman said, if there were a debate on whether or not the world is flat, the headline might be ''Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point."
But why would the right be more likely than the left to exploit the media's balance trap?
2. Conservative policies have an inherent conflict with reality. As Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." It's no joke. For decades, the evidence shows that the economy has done better under Democrats -- for example, see here, here and here. Meanwhile, on social issues, conservatives have resisted progress, standing athwart history yelling Stop, in William F. Buckley's famous phrase. Luckily for workers, women, minorities and the environment, that resistance been largely in vain.
3. Marketing. Marketing has played a key role in the growth of history's largest economy. But much of its power comes from emotional persuasion, which, as any child could tell you, may or may not be based on facts. Since the '60s, both parties have adopted modern marketing techniques. But the GOP, as the party of business, seems to have found this a more comfortable fit, and based on the evidence, has been much more comfortable with pushing emotion way beyond where facts can go. This may explain why for Romney, selling himself on this or that position on abortion or health care reform seems to be about the same thing as selling chewing gum based on this or that flavor.
4. To conservatives, civilization itself is a fragile artifice, maintained only with great effort. The difference between conservatives and liberals can be seen as the difference between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or more simply, the difference between fear and hope. In his Leviathan, Hobbes described humanity's natural state as "... continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that a person's natural state was to have both love for oneself and compassion for others. Kind of sounds like the difference between conservative hawks and bleeding-heart liberals, doesn't it?
The upshot is that for many conservatives, everything good in life only exists because we created it out of chaos, and playing a role is inherent to life in society. It would be absurd to suggest that therefore all conservatives are dishonest. But those who are can take comfort in the belief that it's moral to lie to defeat your enemies, since your enemies, naturally, are trying to destroy you and plunge the world back into barbarism.
Related to this is:
5. Disneyland. I love Disneyland, and I'm not knocking it here. But I don't think it's an accident that this idealized vision of small town America appeared just as the reality was fading away, amidst rapid post-war change. When the '60s accelerated that change to the point of turmoil, I believe many people mentally checked into Disneyland, where they've been defending the gates ever since -- and the similarity to an actual gated community is not incidental. The hermetic world of Fox News, conservative talk radio and blogs, and GOP talking points? To some, it's not dishonest, it's Disneyland.
6. A badly distorted version of religion. I don't hold with Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens that religion is just a problem. But there's a kind of religion in this country that has gone badly awry, one with roots in sincere mysticism on one hand and Elmer Gantry-style con games on the other. It says that since you can take some things on faith, you should take everything on faith. This rejection of reason all-too-conveniently gives charlatans a license to sell anything, and their dupes an excuse to buy it. The modern right has latched onto it big time, while trying to make science and learning seem suspect.
Meanwhile, ironically, deference to religion makes the media reluctant to expose even flagrant abuses of it, for fear of the outrage, real and faux, that would follow. (And with that in mind, just in case it's not clear enough, I am not attacking religion here. I'm attacking liars.)
For our post-truth candidates, it's perfect: By trumpeting their devotion to God, they get to trample all over one of His most inconvenient Commandments -- the one against lying.
Once, the American right did battle with the left over differing interpretations of the same reality. In the new normal, that right is gone.
It has been reborn, in a form untouched by reality: It has achieved the Immaculate Deception.
Does the right get a pass on lying? If so, why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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