Monday, October 22, 2012

Do voters condone lying by candidates? Corruption of elections may begin with the public

By Marc Jampole
The reaction to the vice presidential and the second presidential debates reminds me of a mirror. When you look in a mirror you see yourself. In the case of these debates, it appears that opinion writers, pundits, political advisors and bloggers are all seeing what they want to see. Yes, I believe that both the President and Vice President kicked butt, but I’m a liberal. The twisted arguments I have read on both sides make me discount all opinions, including my own, as subjective wishful thinking. Maybe I’m just seeing the reflection of my own views in the mirror. As with the first debate, we really won’t know who won until we see the polls in about a week.

Perhaps the most talked-about moment in the debate has been Mitt Romney’s unfortunate elision of “binders full of resumes of women” into “binders full of women.” Many Democrats and feminists have been giving Romney a hard time about the remark. The remark as stated does commoditize women, that is, treat them as interchangeable commodities. But give the guy a break.  It was another verbal flub and nothing more. I’m not voting for Mitt because I don’t like his stands and his plans and I don’t think he would make a competent leader of a democracy, but I’m willing to give him a free pass on this remark and rather focus on his awful positions on women’s reproductive rights, health care, the fact that women still make less than men for the same jobs and other important issues. The election is too important to sweat the small stuff.

The fact that the story Romney told about his binders was false raises a more important issue—lying by candidates.  Romney said that he asked for the resumes, when in fact they had been given to him and his opponent in the election before the votes came out in Mitt’s favor.  The Republicans have used these kinds of distortions as a major strategy of the campaign, as fact-checking services have revealed time and again.

But does the public care if candidates lie?

An opinion poll on the homepage of Yahoo! the day before the second presidential debate suggests that many do not.

First, let’s be clear that these online polls are not scientific since people can vote more than once using different computers and the participants are not screened to represent an accurate demographic cross-section.  For example, the Yahoo! polls always skew slightly to the right, meaning that the results always favor the conservative view more than scientific polls conducted by reputable organizations do. This rightward lean could reflect the fact that retired people tend to be more conservative and have the time to do these polls, or it may suggest that Yahoo! is used by a right-leaning demographic or it may be caused by another factor.

The results of Yahoo! polls can be particularly suspect because instead of asking yes-and-no questions, the possible answers always come with a characterization that spins them in one way or another. Here’s today’s poll, for example:
Was Candy Crowley wrong to fact-check during the debate?
            Yes, it’s not the moderator’s place.
            No, she made a good correction.

But what if you think that it is the moderator’s place to fact-check, but do not think Crowley’s correction was accurate? How do you vote then?

Taking the inherent inaccuracies of the Yahoo! poll into account, I am nevertheless completely shocked and dismayed by the results of the Yahoo! Poll on candidates’ lying. Here’s what the approximately half million people who answered the question said:
Do you expect candidates to lie during the debates?
Yes, it’s part of the game: 58%
No, they should be honest: 42%

Even if we factor in people voting twice and take into account the chatty but distorting way Yahoo! asks its questions—even when we consider all those factors, we can only conclude that a large part of the American public believes that its okay for our candidates and elected officials to lie to us. (BTW, I don’t want anyone to infer that I believe that conservatives condone lying more than liberals or centrists. I don’t, although I do believe that the current crop of conservative politicians do lie a lot more than other candidates, and a lot more than conservatives of the 60’s and 70’s did).

Lying and corruption are supposed to be the exceptions that we root out of the system. We are supposed to be shocked when we see students in cheating scandals, scientists giving false results or executives cooking the books.  We’re supposed to base our decisions on the truth and consider the liar a pariah.

But evidently, large numbers of Americans have become ethically challenged. They believe that it’s not how you play the game, but if you win. They follow the cynical political philosopher Machiavelli and think that the ends justify the means.

Is this what the American compact has come down to? Lie to get what you want.

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