Digging Deeper: The Grand Old Appeal of Lies

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Nothing in this post is about the truth! The axiom “speak truth to power” has a corollary: tell lies to the people. The next election will come down to a contest between Barack Obama’s Grand Vision and Republicans’ Big Lies. To Democrats, lies signal a potential win. After all, who votes for a lie? Short answer: lots of people; let’s look at why.

First, lying is an absolute position, usually without nuance or subtlety and strongly backed up. Who deceives and admits it? Why lie and then tell the truth? Remember Ryan’s voucher plan for Medicare? The one that gives a voucher for insurance rather than a single payment option for services received? He insisted it was still Medicare. Bold lies like Ryan’s weaken the structure of elections and legislation. They dismantle honesty to rule by fear and fantasy. They ride in loudly, full of blame, and are willing to boycott and blockade government to break it. But they are bold. Bold lies appeal to fantasy, make fake comparisons, are easy to believe on flimsy evidence.

America has a fascination with the lie as evidence of its fantasy with strength. Leave reality behind; in this new world, those who embrace lies are strong. And lies have a double advantage. They can be told about others — and about the self. Gingrich excels at the double lie. “I did not consult.” “I listened” to executives describe a situation that perfectly fits with my campaign position. (Self.) ”You can only comprehend Barack Obama’s positions if “you understand Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” (Others.)


The GOP is not insane, blind, or stupid; it uses lies and denial for singular and collective effect.

Two effects, in the main:

1) to incite fear, encourage: a) acceptance (“Social Security is outdated, broke, and an empty promise to our children”) or b) resistance to change (“Low tax rates encourage ‘job creators.’”)

2) to weaken logic and degrade its quality to a lower standard that supports the mob’s passion for raw acts of default, fallacy, and blame. (Remember the shameless GOP crowd booing a gay service member?)


The power of a lie depends on how it resonates. In the case of the “harmless” lie, a lie is told with good intent. Its key political resonance is to protect us from harm. (Reagan’s stories; Bachmann’s $200 million a day claim for the cost of Presidential travel to India, her other claims.)

A political lie must also resonate with immediate appeal. Shock value and wit are its elements of success. (Jim DeMint’s lies: We are no longer first in education under Obama, or student loans will be more expensive. His position, gay teachers should not be employed as teachers in public schools.)

A well-crafted public lie, often constructed from obscure technical interpretations, has staying power. It becomes a cultural or social norm. The jubilee myth of Lincoln appearing at plantations after the war; Obama’s birth certificate or Muslim faith become accepted as facts, even when untrue.

Successful public lies met six criteria: unwavering absoluteness/boldness, broad utility/purpose, emotional appeal and shock value, craft and technical roots, wide social support/institutionalization. Once a lie is fixed, its politics trumps its ethics.


Lying is so common that there are names for the fantasy characters who inhabit the GOP universe of false witnesses. Who economist Paul Krugman calls the “confidence fairy” is really an evil fairy. The fairy makes imperfect logic and illogical consequences sound quite reasonable: the idea for Europe and America that budget and tax cuts will restore a nation’s vitality. This is the policy equivalent of the blood-letting barbers and physicians performed to balance the body’s health. Take heed, the practice lasted 2,000 years — supported long after it was discredited.

If we use economic policy as a case study, we know by evidence and experience that both epidemics and recessions call for fortification, not blood-letting. For economic policy, this means expansion — yes, higher spending, marginal inflation, larger debt in the short term, until growth and employment targets are met. Economic expansion is like George Bush’s Surge; when things are bad, doubling down can have benefits. Sure, it is costly and goes against instinct, but it enables conditions to be turned around.

Okay, here’s a quick test for any economic policy of the GOP. Ask the confidence fairy: how long before public austerity and safety net cuts return millions of private jobs? No answer?

No nation — certainly not the fastest growing, those making up the most economic ground — is using austerity as a policy model (not Brazil, India, China, Paraguay, Nigeria, Turkey, eg.) Where cuts have worked, they have been made in the private sector. Iceland let the banks fail and strengthened its safety nets. Now, it is recovering. Britain and the few nations who launched austerity are faltering while blaming others for being wrongheaded.

The austerity fairy puts parts in the wrong place and mis-identifies their function. Demand is driven not by capital (US corporations’ $3.2 trillion in shelved profits) but by income (worker pay checks). In fact, workers create wealth, which, properly returned, accelerates growth. The economic engine is the great middle class, not some phony, fairy-conceived “job creators.” The  GOP must quit the Grand Deception that macro economy can be managed with militarism, magic wands or as family check books.

But wrongheaded, well-crafted lies (look at Greece, Spain, Ireland; the US is next) call for more sacrifice to invisible fairies against the real threat of Congress’ self-inflicted collapse.

And those in government who sacrifice the grave responsibilities of freedom, who say they believe in fairies, would have us think they are fighting for truth.