If you only read one meaty article today, it should be historian Rick Perlstein’s Mother Jones piece on how the Republican Party has come to inhabit a virtually fact-free zone in which ideology and spin dictate the terms of debate and there’s no one to referee.
Perlstein takes the reader quickly through the twentieth century development of counter-factual politicking, from William Randolph Hearst’s invention of the dastardly destruction of the U.S.S. Maine, to LBJ’s vast exaggeration of the Tonkin Gulf incident, to Ronald Reagan’s dangerous assertions that truth-telling about America’s sins and shortcomings was unpatriotic.
But the most recent lurch into “mendocracy,” says Perlstein, has involved an enormous expansion of the ranks of authorized liars, abetted by “neutral” media who no longer seem to think there is any such thing as objective truth:
There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged “balance” over truth-telling–even when one side was lying. It’s a real and profound change–one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration’s “Watergate morality.” Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the “liberal” contention that scientific facts are facts–and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It’s happened to me more than once–on public radio, no less….
And here, in the end, is the difference between the untruths told by William Randolph Hearst and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the ones inundating us now: Today, it’s not just the most powerful men who can lie and get away with it. It’s just about anyone–a congressional back-bencher, an ideology-driven hack, a guy with a video camera–who can inject deception into the news cycle and the political discourse on a grand scale.
Perlstein has put his finger on one of the most important phenomena of contemporary politics, one that has no obvious solution and thus represents something we don’t really want to talk about. We can’t bring back Walter Cronkite to referee for us, but we also can’t just accept a situation where progressives are expected to go into “neutral” venues and yuck it up with Andrew Breitbart.