A Fine Line

I must admit being more than a little pissed while reading Ross Douthat use the cover of cynicism to dismiss concerns about blatant lies in politics.

I’m a terrible cynic, I think, because I just can’t get worked up about the kind of stuff Ezra and others have mind here. (Even when I think a given attack ad crosses a line, I’m thinking as much about the line between productive attacks and counterproductive ones as the line between honor and dishonor.) For much the same reasons that I never hated the Clintons, I can’t bring myself to worry about whether McCain has kept his “dignity” sufficiently intact while slugging it out for the Presidency: The point of being in national politics is to win elections and govern the country in accordance with whatever goals led you into the arena in the first place, not to please columnists who disagree with you on ideological grounds but appreciate a finely-tuned sense of political principle. And anyone who believes that McCain is running a uniquely dishonorable campaign for the presidency just doesn’t have enough historical perspective – or enough distance from their own passions – to comment sensibly on contemporary politics.

I’m as cynical as anyone, especially when it comes to politics and politicians, but this simply isn’t cynicism, it’s absolutism. The underlying assumption here is that the ends justifies the means, which is fine in some respect, but it’s decidedly un-democratic in its implications.

The literal foundation of a representative democracy is the integrity of the campaign. Candidates presennt their proposals, attack their opponents’, and generally try to outline why you should vote for them. The success of such a system rests on the level of information the voter takes with them when making the decision of who to support. The more informed the electorate, the more successful the system. Of course, politicians are going to distort, spin, accentuate, and exaggerate, but the idea that they lie regularly is simply not true. In fact, blatant lying is almost unheard of in politics, at least in terms of policy discussions. And it’s especially unheard of to continue to repeat a lie after its been as widely debunked as almost all of the McCain’s campaign has been.

Now you can chalk this up to honor or integrity if you want, but there’s something much more important than that at stake, indeed, no less than the foundation of democracy itself. When one candidate refuses to deal in truthfulness, and traffics entirely in lies about himself and his opponent, it’s simply impossible for voters to make an informed choice about that candidate, unless they know they’re lying of course, and that leaves the democratic system in a figurative coin toss, where you ca just hope people make the right decision.

There’s also the fact that, surely, voters deserve an accurate portrayal of what each candidate proposes to do. They deserve to know that Obama is proposing larger tax cuts for millions more Americans than John McCain. They certainly deserve to know that John McCain wants to dismantle the entire system by which they get their health insurance. Instead, they’re being treated to lies about bridges and sex and farm animals. And that’s specifically because the McCain campaign knows they’d lose if the public knew what they wanted to do if they win.

And that fact is not noble, cynical, or typical. It’s absolutist, and completely anti-democratic.