The toxic and alluring mix of truth and falsehood

Ask pretty much anyone who’s been around long enough to see a few U.S. election cycles in action, and they’ll probably agree with the statement, “Politicians lie.” And there’s plenty of evidence from the past few months alone to prove that’s true.

Lies can be useful to a would-be leader, especially one with Machiavellian tendencies. Truth-telling, on the other hand, is more generally respected — in the abstract, anyway — as an admirable quality. In reality, though, truths are often treated as “inconvenient,” politically incorrect or downright unwelcome.

One example of this that’s recently gotten much (belated) attention is the powers-that-be reception given to It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, a book by the Brookings Institution’s Thomas E. Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman J. Ornstein. The 2012 book made a strong case that, among other things, the mainstream political “wisdom” that the Republican and Democratic parties were equally dysfunctional, was a fiction. Of the two key sources of U.S. leadership woes, Mann and Ornstein wrote, one was the face that “one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regine; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

In other words, Mann and Ornstein argued, both parties were not equally to blame for the mess in Washington: the Republican party had alone jumped the shark and gone mad.

The reception to this premise in the political and media halls of power: nothing but the chirp of crickets and a collective turning of heads to look anywhere but at the truth unmasked. The top political shows aired every Sunday suddenly appeared to “lose” Mann and Ornstein’s phone numbers.


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