Nothing Really Matters, Anyone Can See ... or Maybe Not

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my post here on Dorf on Law yesterday, I asked, "Do Republicans Lie and Deceive for No Reason?"  There, I considered whether there is any real value in calling out the lies and deceptions of politicians -- especially today's Republicans, who have taken shameless distortion to levels previously unseen.  In particular, I responded to the apologia that goes something like this: "Oh, come on, it's all a game.  The politicians lie, and the people know they're lying.  It's stupid to think that there is any reason to point out when a politician isn't being completely honest."

My response to that objection was that it proves too much, which is not to say that there is nothing at all to it.  For example, any good criminal defense lawyer will know to refer to her client by name (to humanize him), just as any good prosecutor will know never to refer to a defendant by anything other than "the defendant," and it would be tantamount to malpractice for either attorney not to act based on such strategic considerations.  Words matter, and we expect people to choose words in ways that will advance their objectives.

However, if we were truly in the equilibrium position where every politician is lying all the time, and everyone knows that everyone is lying all the time, then there would be no reason to make the effort to lie.  Now, one might object that a lying-all-the-time equilibrium would at least require everyone to continue lying, lest one put oneself in a disadvantageous position, as in my example with the defense lawyer and prosecutor above.  That does not work, however, because if everyone knows when everyone else is lying, then everyone must also know what the truth is, which means that a politician would suffer no disadvantage from telling the truth.  (The lawyers' word choices only matter, after all, because their audience is a jury that is not in on the game.)  But if everyone does not know when someone is telling the truth, then there really is an advantage to be gained from lying, which brings us back to a situation in which calling out liars has a public benefit.

In any case, I noted that the Republicans do not act as if they expect to gain no advantage from lying and deceiving.  As the Washington Post Fact Check article that I discussed yesterday explained, Republicans in the mid-1990's conceived of the idea of referring to the tax code as the "IRS Code," putting great effort into the plan to have all Republicans associate the public's dissatisfaction with the tax code (written by Congress) with their hatred of the IRS (vilified and under-funded by Congress, at Republican insistence).  This was exactly the same period in which those same Contract-on-America Republican radicals were re-branding the estate tax the "death tax," a public relations effort that has been documented at book length.

Republicans have shown that they are willing to put serious resources into long-term propaganda campaigns.  By revealed preference, then, they must believe that they are doing something shrewd.  To prove that repeated Orwellisms like "IRS Code" do not matter would require something far beyond, "I don't think it affects the way people think, because people aren't stupid," which is the only thing resembling an argument that the Republicans' defenders have offered.

There might, however, be a different way to deflect claims that Republicans' sustained assault on facts and language is damaging the country.  That defense can be assembled from the arguments of, of all people, Paul Krugman.  In his NYT op-ed this past Monday, Krugman convincingly asserted that all of the "endless thumb-sucking" about the presidential candidates is a waste of time.  For all of the attempts to divine the "character" of the various candidates, Krugman notes, the two parties will nominate people in 2016 whose platforms are currently pretty easy to predict.

Moreover, Krugman points out, the parties' consensus positions are quite different.  Unlike, say, 1976, when one could reasonably have predicted that Jimmy Carter would govern to the right of where Gerald Ford would have governed (at least on some issues), any Republican candidate today will win only by embracing the tax-cutting, labor-bashing, regulation-cutting, Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security-attacking, climate-change denying, culture warrior stuff that the party's base requires.  In fact, Krugman wrote, "the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election."

And then there is the well known empirical fact, which Krugman described in his op-ed the previous Monday, that nothing that politicians say seems to matter to election outcomes, because "[w]hat mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year."  This effect, moreover, seems to be true not just of general elections.  In the 2014 mid-terms, the only way to explain the success of candidates who would otherwise have been punchlines -- like now-Senators Jodi Ernst and Cory Gardner -- is by reference to something beyond what the politicians actually say.

Put together these two observations -- that we already know what the ultimate nominees will stand for, and that the differences between those two positions will not determine the result of the election -- and you have a pretty good case for the idea that "nothing really matters." Whether Rand Paul is being especially egregious in his twisting of statistics, or Ted Cruz is being unhinged in telling his followers that it would be possible to "shut down the IRS" (without replacing it with an essentially identical tax collection agency), might simply not affect anything.  Which would mean, of course, that calling them out on any of that does not matter, either.

Although I completely believe both elements of Krugman's argument, there is still room for Republicans' lying to matter, which means that there is still reason to be vigilant in pointing out those lies.  The question is how the parties' consensus positions become consensus positions.  For example, as many people have pointed out over the years, there is no good reason for the Republicans' foot soldiers to oppose the estate tax.  Once it was called a death tax, and once the mythology had been implanted about that tax's supposedly devastating effects on family farms, the plutocrats were able to get the little people to do their bidding.

Worse, the Democrats failed to push back on that mythology, which quickly led to farm-state Democrats in the Senate agreeing to make foolish changes to that tax.  It is the same basic story that I have often recounted about how Democrats so badly failed to respond to the deficits-and-debt-are-destroying-the-world campaign waged by Republicans.  Not having made the arguments in favor of deficits and debt, and having essentially adopted the Republicans' attack lines to try to attack deficits under Reagan and the Bushes, Democrats have left themselves with no room to move, to the detriment of actual people.

We then find ourselves with two parties, admittedly miles apart on policy, and whose fates will be determined by the direction of the economy in Spring 2016, with policy positions driven in large part by the successes and failures of attempts to distort the facts.  Pushing back on ridiculousness like "IRS Code" and "death tax" will surely not turn around the next election, but it can change the arguments that are taken as acceptable by both sides going forward.

Congressional Republicans' big symbolic move this year on April 15 was not to pass a fundamental tax reform bill.  It was to repeal the estate tax.  That strategic decision did not happen by accident, and it certainly was not a given when "death tax" was first injected into the political conversation in the 1990's.  Distortions, especially those to which there has been no effective response, matter.