On this eve of the mid-term elections, I am thankful that we live in a democratic society in which we are not only entitled to our opinions, but to make those opinions heard at the ballot box. To be honest, however, I am also thankful that, come tomorrow evening, the barrage of political advertisements will be behind us, at least for a while. Despite many voices calling for civility in public debate and discussion, political advertisements filled with half-truths, misleading statements and, in some cases, flat out lies have filled the air. This may be because, as some researchers claim, negative campaigning works. But do we really believe that it is okay for people seeking positions of leadership and authority to lie to voters about the issues, their opponents, and themselves?
The Blade reported recently that in a Bloomberg poll two out of three respondents believed that during the Obama administration taxes have gone up and the economy has shrunk. The same percentage believed that TARP funds lent to major banks would never be repaid. These three propositions have two things in common. First, a lot of good people sincerely believe them. Second, all three are false. For most middle-income American, taxes have decreased. There has been economic growth over the last year-and-half, and a profit of nearly $16 billion from repayment of TARP loans is expected. Can we be surprised by this disconnect between fact and public opinion, however, when so much money and effort is devoted to spreading false and misleading information for political advantage?
Ads seeking to exploit unhappiness with the current administration’s economic policies routinely refer the “the failed stimulus” but the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports that between 1.4 and 3.3 million jobs exist in today’s economy as a direct result of the economic stimulus. The Dispatch, the daily paper in Columbus, reported that many of the charges made against State Treasurer Kevin Boyce in ads supporting his challenger, Josh Mandel, were false. According to The Dispatch — which has a conservative editorial position – the Mandel ads falsely claimed that Boyce “outsourced jobs” and sought to play on racial and religious intolerance by implying -falsely -that Boyce is a Muslim.
It is important to point out that this problem is not confined to one political party. Candidates and campaign advisors from both parties regularly stretch, or ignore, the truth in the quest for votes. PolitiFactOhio, an independent fact-checking organization, reports that it has checked 80 claims by Ohio candidates from both parties. Of that total, 28 — just over 1 in 3 — were rated as “true” or “mostly true.” The remaining 52 claims were rated “half true” , “false” or in the case of the most outrageous statements, “pants on fire.” It is worth pausing to let that soak in. According to PolitifactOhio, misleading or blatantly false statements in Ohio campaign materials have outnumbered truthful statements by two-to-one in this election cycle.
The national picture is no prettier. FactCheck.org offers impartial analysis of the accuracy of statements made in candidate’s speeches, interviews and advertisements. A few minutes at that site will yield a long and disturbing list of distortions and misrepresentations by politicians from both parties.
More than forty years ago, I had a civics teacher who displayed a banner on the wall above the chalk board at the front of the classroom. The banner, which remained on the wall throughout the school year, said simply “The first duty of a citizen of a republic is to be informed.” This year’s election cycle has caused me to think of that teacher, and the banner, more than I have in a long time. If it is our duty as citizens to be informed – and it is — shouldn’t it be the duty of those calling themselves leaders to provide information which will help us make thoughtful decisions about the direction of our state and our country?
False and misleading campaign statements cannot be excused simply because they are effective at getting votes. The ultimate objective of seeking office is to govern. This involves seeking and finding solutions to complex problems. This, in turn, requires the willingness and ability to discern and deal with facts. A demonstrated willingness to ignore or distort the truth to fit one’s own personal needs or beliefs is precisely what we do not need in our political leadership. And if my former teacher was right, intentionally misleading the electorate does irreparable harm to the quality of our democracy.