Politics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.
Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.
So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.
Of course, intuitive lies are not restricted to one political party, though one of the two major campaigns this year is much farther removed from logic and evidence than the other. And the fact that Trump swings so far afield into a world immune from logical critique doesn’t change the fact that his lies feel true, and thus go unquestioned, for some portion of America.
Trump’s flagship lie, the one that started his political campaign a decade ago (his attempt to pass the bunk to Clinton notwithstanding), is that “Obama isn’t an American.” This is a lie that appeals to both latent racism and the deep conviction that Obama is fundamentally not the same as white, rural, lower-middle class America. This is certainly true—but the flaw, of course, is the presumption that there is a “real” America by which others may be judged. America contains multitudes, and yet the idea that some core white male America can be restored is the motto that drives Trump’s success.
Meanwhile, the old Right-wing canard that “welfare makes people lazy” is an insidious piece of propaganda that justifies, for the Christian Right, the most un-Christian behavior: selfishness. This is a lie that resolves for us the cognitive dissonance between the priorities of self-centered American competition and the avowed priorities of service and generosity. If helping people makes them lazy, we help them best by not helping, and we may claim greed as paternalistic tough love.
And, lest you think intuitive lies are the province of Trump alone, or of the anti-science Right, “synthetic chemicals are making everyone sick” is a lie for the left that plays on deep fears of contamination and poisoning the wild. The more left among us prefer to think of nature as good and pristine, and thus we fall prey most easily to those lies that employ the naturalistic fallacy and suggest that anything wild is healthy and safe, and anything human-made is dangerous poison.
And most recently, “the democratic primary was rigged” is a lie that appealed deeply to those of us who wanted a political revolution and supported a certain Jewish senator from Vermont. Bernie Sanders inspired excitement and fervor amongst his supporters, and seemed to speak deeply to our great disillusionment with the engines of power in our society. How, then, could so many people have felt less enthused? Obviously the primary was rigged—but it wasn’t. The lie, though, simplifies the deeper problem: that we assume other people, by and large, think the same as we do.
What I find fascinating about these, and so many other, intuitive lies in this election cycle is that such lies in the past have tended to be buried in a deep layer of allusion and euphemism. When our politicians invoked racism, sexism, xenophobia, and prejudice, they did it with subtlety and the veneer of plausible deniability. This year, on top of the usual pandering and side-stepping, we have a major party candidate who is straightforwardly deceitful and hateful both.
So, with the façade much thinner than usual, we in our discourse have to confront something those of us with a skeptical bent have known for a long time: facts don’t change minds. No matter how much you fact-check the pie-in-the-sky policies of Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, the calculated pandering and dissembling of Hillary Clinton, or the fundamentally dishonest word vomit of Donald Trump, we go on believing the things our candidates say and minimizing or explaining away the evidence against them.
The temptation, of course, is to throw up your hands at the obvious lies from the candidates you don’t support. But that’s easy, and gets us nowhere. We already know those things are lies, because we have no motivation to believe them, and motivation is the only reason to accept them. The evidence doesn’t even begin to support them.
So much harder, and so much more necessary, is to confront the things we choose to believe because they are comfortable on our own side of the fence.
That’s hard. That’s unintuitive. In a polarized election, that feels like weakness.
I also think it’s the only way forward. Because another intuitive lie is that democracy is about winning for your side. It’s not; it’s about compromising and building the best option for everyone. We think we have that option, but so does everyone else, and if we let ourselves fall for the intuitive lies, we will never have compromises—only enemies.
Photo Credit: Susanne Nilsson