After the first presidential debate, Factcheck.org reported, "We found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast during the first debate between President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney... Romney sometimes came off as a serial exaggerator." The Washington Post found that "Both President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney tossed out a blizzard of statistics and facts, often of dubious origin."
In the second presidential debate, the candidates were again found to be less than truthful. PolitiFact reported that "President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed at a town hall debate Tuesday with talking points that both used and abused the truth." FactCheck.org found that it was "full of claims that sometimes didn't match the facts."
Fact checkers had similar comments after the vice presidential debate. The Washington Post reported, "There were lots of feisty words and fishy facts in Thursday's debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan." PolitiFact reported that "[t]he vice presidential debate Thursday night began on a somber note, then quickly turned to lively attacks -- with both candidates stretching the truth."
It wasn't just in the debates that the truth was ignored. The New York Times reported that when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan accepted their party's nomination, "The two speeches -- peppered with statements that were incorrect or incomplete -- seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside." President Obama's speech, on the other hand, was found to be mostly true by The Washington Post.
Factcheck.org analyzed the stump speeches Mitt Romney has given around the country and "found numerous instances of candidate spin in what Romney had to say." Obama, on the other hand, was found to be "leaving out or glossing over inconvenient facts, twisting others and sometimes stating things that aren't so." The Washington Post selected the five television ads from each side that have had the "greatest spending on them." Four out of five of the ads from each side were given either two or three "Pinocchios" (out of a possible four).
This is a very frightening state of affairs, for it is reasonable to assume that if our highest political leaders are so willing to distort the truth and leave out important information in their campaigns, that they will have no qualms about doing so while in office as well. Such distortions and omissions would likely be related to actions or policies by the government that are contrary to the public interest. We might find -- after the fact, of course -- that favored special interests were allowed to engage in activities that cause massive damage to the economy, the environment, or to public health. The government might spent gigantic amounts of money irresponsibly and put the country many trillions of dollars into debt. We could even find ourselves in an unjust or unnecessary war, with many thousands or millions of citizens being killed or injured. There is no greater threat to the freedom of the American people than politicians who are willing to lie to the public.
The typical reaction to such behavior in politics is to bash the "politicians." In fact, such behavior is now so commonplace that the word "politician" has become a derogatory term. Candidates running for office routinely bash the "politicians" in Washington or in the state capitol in an attempt to justify their own election. Clearly, the problem with honesty is not isolated to any one politician or political office -- it is endemic to our entire political system--and has been for a very long time. It seems, therefore, that the problem is with the political system that has given rise to this state of affairs.
What has allowed this to happen?
Consider some of the debate topics that fact-checkers found the candidates less than honest about: details of Mitt Romney's economic plan, various taxing and spending policies of the Obama administration, details about Obamacare, whether Mitt Romney invested in companies that shipped jobs to China, the number of jobs that have been created over the last four years.
How many Americans understand these topics well enough to spot fabrications when they hear them? Surveys have consistently found that most Americans are dismally uninformed about politics. After the 2010 elections, fewer than half of all Americans knew that the Republicans had won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Just 28 percent could correctly name John Roberts as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Only 40 percent can name the three branches of government.
If so many people know so little about the government, it seems hard to imagine more than a tiny minority knowing the facts about the debate topics. And when people don't know the facts, they are highly susceptible to lies and manipulation.
Do people know so little because they are stupid and lazy? Hardly. America is full of brilliant, hardworking people, and most of them simply aren't interested in delving into such issues. Most of the things our government deals with are very complex, obscure, and boring, and most people have busy lives with many more interesting and pressing things to spend their time on. It would be irrational for people to spend a lot of time learning about things that probably won't have a direct, immediate impact on their lives.
The truth doesn't matter to the candidates because the people don't know what the truth is. To a large extent, the candidates can even brush off the fact checkers because they know most people won't read their findings. A member of the Romney campaign made this clear when he said, "We won't let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
It is well known -- particularly by the candidates -- that people, by and large, decide whom to vote for based on the candidate's personality, image, authenticity, and vibe. Campaigns are thus about showmanship. That's why, despite reports that Mitt Romney ran roughshod over the truth, he was widely considered the winner of the first debate.
In this environment, politicians spin and exaggerate issues while leaving out important details. They take credit for positive outcomes that are not of their making and blame their opponent for events over which they had no control. They attack and vilify their opponents on minor things that they blow out of proportion while trumpeting things about themselves that are overstated or only partly true. They frame issues advocated by supporting special interests as being in the best interests of the country, while they are often contrary to the public interest. They repeat fabrications over and over until people come to accept them as truth.
Any group with enough resources is also free to enter the fray and exploit the public's lack of knowledge. Thousands of special interest groups have established front groups with public-friendly names that masquerade as public interest groups. These organizations spend billions on advertising and public relations campaigns every year in an attempt to influence the public, and much of what they propagate is a very twisted version of the truth.
How can people possibly make good voting decisions in an atmosphere such as this?
What we have is a gigantic gap between what citizens are expected to know about politics and what is possible. It is by expecting the impossible that we have gotten into this morass of misinformation.
Does this mean democracy is an impossible ideal?
Consider what we do when we have a legal, medical, or plumbing problem -- we delegate the task to a lawyer, doctor, or plumber. People accept that it is impractical for them to become experts in law, medicine, and plumbing, so why do we expect everyone to understand what is going on in an enormous government and make good decisions about it? Considering the wide variety of issues the government deals with, it is at least as complex as any of these other fields, and probably far more so.
Perhaps the solution is for citizens to delegate their political responsibilities to a representative who is close enough to them that they can realistically get to know him, engage in real two-way communication with him, and hold him accountable for the work that he does do. This would require all citizens to be part of small election districts, each with their own representative -- a community representative.
In this scenario, even dedicated community representatives would still be too distant and overwhelmed by our enormous government, so in order to bridge that gap, our existing representatives would also need to be arranged in a hierarchy, with each level electing, setting the agenda of, and holding accountable the next level.
An example of how this would work is as follows: Citizens would elect community representatives, who would in turn elect members of the state legislature, who would in turn elect the governor. Members of the state legislature in each congressional district would also elect their member of the U.S. Congress, who would in turn elect the president. Community representatives would also elect members of the city council, who in turn would elect the mayor.
This would connect citizens to the government via a hierarchy of connected representatives. With each level being so close to adjacent levels, communication could flow up and down the hierarchy with ease. And since representatives at each level would be accountable to people who are close to them, honesty would be required.
This is similar to how corporations and all organizations are arranged. In effect, a system such as this would make democracy work like an organization. Just as CEOs of large corporations don't need to know all of their employees personally, or oversee what they do and how they do it, citizens would not need to know the details of what the government does in order to control it. And just as a CEO decides the strategy of a corporation and makes major corrections via a hierarchy of managers, citizens would be able to set the agenda of the government and make course corrections via a hierarchy of representatives.
Such a scenario would eliminate the expectation that citizens need to be informed about many candidates, many elected officials, and a vast government. Instead, people would have a single point-of-contact in the government to whom they could go for all of their political needs.
We have thought through such a system of democracy and call it Local Electors, which is also the name we have given to the community representatives. You can learn more about it at www.localelectors.org.
The conventional wisdom is that voting for distant politicians makes us free, but the opposite is true. We are only free to the extent that we know what our government representatives are doing, and that we can make informed decisions when electing them. If we want to be free, we must break out of our existing democratic paradigm, which prevents the people from knowing the truth and causes us to be mere pawns of influence.