Political language, George Orwell wrote, is designed to make lies sound truthful.
And the history of political oratory is wallpapered with lies.
Peace with honor in Vietnam. I am not a crook. We did not trade arms for hostages. Read my lips, no new taxes. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. There’s no comparison between our exit from Afghanistan and our exit from Saigon.
But the more insidious lies are the ones voters hear every day, the ones so common that both speaker and listener might actually believe what they’re hearing, even though they shouldn’t.
If anybody running for office — whether it be city council, county commission, state legislature, governor, Congress or U.S. senator — tells you that “if you elect me, I’m going to do X,” they are almost always lying.
Why? Because this is America, where we have a proud tradition of checks and balances, a slow, plodding system that’s akin to turning around a giant cargo ship, at least back in the days when cargo ships actually went places instead of anchoring off Southern California waiting for a berth at the port of Long Beach like it was a table at Cheesecake Factory on a busy Saturday night.
The absolute most a candidate for office can promise is that they will work to convince enough fellow lawmakers to support their idea so that it can pass, because one person can’t do something alone in American government. (One person can, however, stop something from getting done alone, as co-presidents Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema can attest.)
But voters want to hear pragmatic truth from politicians about as much as they want to hear a dentist’s drill.
This dichotomy is playing out right now in the Democratic primary for the 20th Congressional District of Florida, where Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick narrowly defeated Dale Holness to replace the late Alcee Hastings.
After Cherfilus-McCormick won the Nov. 2 primary by just five votes, Holness sued, claiming she bribed voters to win because she touted something called the “People’s Prosperity Plan,” a form of universal basic income.
“Defendant Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick touted a widely reported gimmick that she referred to as the ‘People’s Prosperity Plan,’” the lawsuit reads. “The ‘plan’ is intended to offer a false hope to underserved communities with the intention and purpose of procuring votes in return. The promise offered by Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is that every adult earning less than $75,000 a year will receive a monthly one thousand ($1,000) check if Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was elected.”
That’s right: Holness has caught Cherfilus-McCormick red-handed committing felony campaigning with an intent to win. It’s an open-and-shut case!
Holness is right that the universal basic income is a gimmick. But how is it different from a chicken in every pot, or are you better off now than you were four years ago, or everybody gets (some access to) health care (insurance)?
Every politician in every campaign promises every voter something in order to win votes, and every voter dreams of getting something. In short, people want to be lied to and politicians are more than willing to lie. It’s a perverse, dysfunctional relationship, but no one wants to risk losing by telling the truth. And as long as there is an audience willing to be deceived, there will be a long line of people willing to do the deceiving.
And Cherfilus-McCormick didn’t even lie. According to her fliers (included as evidence in the lawsuit), she promises to “fight to enact the People’s Prosperity Plan.” In another, she reports that after she unveiled the plan, “96 Democrats in Congress agreed with Sheila when they co-sponsored a bill which will send $1,200 monthly checks to most adults.”
So she told the truth: She will need support for her free-money plan, and electing her won’t automatically make it happen. (To be fair, even electing her won’t make it happen. Free money is always appealing to voters, and the government is running the printing presses overtime at the Treasury, but the path to real prosperity is jobs.)
Adults know that there is nothing free in this world, that money comes from work, and that people making promises they can’t back up should never be taken seriously. Now, if only the American electorate were composed of adults, we’d really have something going here …