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The Dark Morality of Politics

There’s been a bit of stir over two campaign television ads in the United States, one by Mitt Romney and the other by Rick Perry. No nuanced untruths here. Essentially both ads tell blatant lies. I read about the Romney ad in the New York Times. In the ad President Obama is heard saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The implication is clear. However, the quote is taken out of context. Obama made the statement during the 2008 presidential campaign and was quoting one of John McCain’s strategists. What Obama actually said was this, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ ” Mr. Romney’s advisers justified this rather obvious distortion of the truth by saying that Obama lies too and that politics is a rough game. 

I came across the Perry ad on the ABC News website. Perry accuses Obama of calling the American people lazy in the ad quoting the President as saying, We’ve been a little bit lazy over the last couple of decades. Perry responds, “Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic.” Very dramatic, but again the charge is a lie. Obama was asked about “his thinking on the perception by some countries of ‘impediments to investment’ in the U.S. The President’s response, “We’ve been a little bit lazy over the last couple of decades.  We’ve kind of taken for granted — ‘Well, people would want to come here’ — and we aren’t out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new businesses into America.” Obama was not accusing the American people of being lazy but the American government. When Perry was confronted with this obvious truth, on Fox News no less, he simply stuck to his guns saying,  "I think he's talking about Americans … I think that's exactly what he's talking about.”

Both ads are still running on American television. I ask myself, which of the falling quotes best reflects the kind of morality that drives politics?

“If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.” (Joseph Goebbels)
“Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

When I first read about these campaign ads I had two immediate responses. The first was that Republicans have always been better at this sort of thing than Democrats. I'm not saying Democrats are innocent. Just that Republicans are better at it. I read an article once some years back analysing the language used by Republicans and Democrats when talking about politics and campaigning. The article concluded that Republicans tend to use the language of war and the Democrats the language of sports. When George W. Bush and Al Core essentially tied in the 2000 presidential elections and the contest moved from the ballot boxes to the courts, British friends asked me who was going to win. I said without hesitation, "The Republicans. In a street fight always put your money on the Republicans."

My second response was a bit more philosophical, and perhaps naive. Despite myself I was upset that Romney and Perry were getting away with such obvious distortions of the truth. Realpolitik and all that. Still, if I am naive at least I'm in good company. In his book Summer Meditations on Politics, Morality and Civility in a Time of Transition, Václav Havel says, “Some say I’m a naive dreamer who is always trying to combine the incompatible: politics and morality.”[1]

In his naïveté Havel believed, not only as a playwright and dissident but as president of his country, that politics and power should “live in truth.” Speaking of a unnamed Czech Marxist philosopher he said, “The idea that the world might actually be changed by the force of truth, the power of a truthful word, the strength of a free spirit, conscience, and responsibility...was quite beyond the horizon of his understanding.”[2] Forgive me for suggesting it is also beyond the horizons of Romney and Perry. When considering how he might actually apply a “truthful word” to the business of being president, Havel says a president must at least attempt to create a “high politics...a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust” He went on to say that he had to “inject into my political ideals, my longing for justice, decency, and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call ‘the moral state.’”[3]

The United States is so politically polarised, where compromise is viewed as utter defeat, it seems that “high politics” is near impossible. Perhaps hoping for an almost high politics would not be futile, but given the blatant disregard for truth in campaigning I’m not going to hold my breath. 


[1] Havel, Václav. Summer Meditations on Politics, Morality and Civility in a Time of Transition. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

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