September 23, 2008

A Campaign Based On Truthiness

A couple of years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the phrase "Truthiness" to describe something a person "knows" to be true based on intuition and gut-feeling rather than facts, logic, or intellectual examination. Truthiness is, in essence, the quality of something being true simply because you want it to be true or that you say it's true, regardless of whether or not it's actually, you know, true.

It's a cute word until you base a Presidential campaign on it.

This opinion piece in the New York Times
got me thinking about truthiness and its role in this election, and I found myself nodding vehemently with the author's assertion:

A [Karl] Rovian political strategy by definition means all slime, all the time. But the more crucial Rove game plan is to envelop the entire presidential race in a thick fog of truthiness. All campaigns, Obama’s included, engage in false attacks. But McCain, Sarah Palin and their surrogates keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it.

And that's what a truthiness-based campaign is all about. It doesn't matter whether or not something is actually true. What matters is that you believe it to be true, and then you repeat it over and over until everyone else believes it to be true as well. With truthiness, you create an alternative reality so strong that even the actual truth does not change people's minds.

8 years of George W. Bush has shown us just how powerful and insidious truthiness is*, and McCain has clearly adopted truthiness as his main political strategy. That's just really sad.

A classic example of Bush truthiness is the justification for going to war in Iraq. In September 2003, fully 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved or responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the result of which was an American public who firmly supported the invasion of Iraq. The fact is, there never was any evidence that Hussein was linked to the 9/11 attacks--not then and not now. So why did so many people buy it? Because the Bush Administration simply kept linking the two by mentioning them in the same sentence over and over again. Americans were bombarded with "9/11" and "Saddam Hussein" in close proximity so often that Bush created a reality in people's minds that Hussein was involved in the attacks. Even while a small portion of the media clearly reported there was no link, the truth was not enough to overcome the truthiness. Even when the Bush Administration themselves came out and said there was no link, people still believed it. It wasn't until the war dragged on, became more bloody, and became clear that things were not turning out the way we thought they would did the facade start to crumble on that truthiness. Of course, by then it was too late, and we're still stuck there.

It is the power of truthiness that McCain is harvesting in his campaign. Let's look at some examples.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 51% of those polled believe that Obama will raise their taxes. The truth is that according to the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Obama's plan would cut taxes for 95% of all households. Numerous media outlets including have reported multiple times on the truth of Obama's tax plan (here's one example, and another, and another), but the truthiness remains, simply because the McCain campaign keeps repeating that Obama will raise your taxes.

Truthiness also explains why the McCain/Palin campaign continued to assert that Sarah Palin said "thanks, but no thanks" to the "Bridge to Nowhere," even after the media reported that that wasn't true. What's the truthiness aspect? The Bridge to Nowhere lie is part of a larger truthiness--building the perception that Sarah Palin rejected federal earmarks, which is a cornerstone of McCain's purported "maverick" stance in the Senate. The truth? Sarah Palin hired a lobbyist and brought in over $27 million in federal earmarks to Wasilla (population 7,000 at the time). John McCain may well be a maverick when it comes to federal earmarks--he has truth on his side. The centrist group Taxpayers for Common Sense listed Arizona dead last in federal spending per capita. Sarah Palin? Not so much. Guess which state ranked first?

More truthiness? McCain earned "Pants On Fire" ratings from on Obama calling Sarah Palin a pig, Obama wanting to increase the government by 23%, and of course, teaching sex ed to kindergarteners.

But no matter. McCain will just keep repeating lies until they become truths in peoples' minds. Look for more examples of truthiness in these upcoming weeks. I assure you, they'll be there.

*It would be inaccurate to credit Bush with the invention and mastery of truthiness. As the article says, that honor goes to Karl Rove. Which makes it all the more sad when the Master of Truthiness Himself accuses McCain of truthiness.

Posted by Shelby at September 23, 2008 03:32 PM

As always there are two sides to every story.

Posted by: Pop at September 24, 2008 01:27 PM

Hi Shelby,

I agree that there is a serious lack of truthfulness visible in our society, and in the campaigns. I respectfully ask, what do you make of this?


Posted by: :: Suzanne :: at September 26, 2008 04:54 PM

Click on the word "this" in the comment above.

Posted by: :: Suzanne :: at September 26, 2008 04:55 PM
Sadly, Further Comments Have Been Disabled ...

Due to a never-ending flood of comment spam, we've decided to disable comments for all blog entries past a certain age. If you'd like to comment on a closed blog entry, say something in one of the newer entries or E-mail the author.

-- Apologies, The Management