Political language more debased than ever


I received an email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week. The subject line read, “Boehner Meets the Press, Lies.”

That was tame compared to the mailing sent out a few days earlier by sometime Nevada Republican Sharron Angle, still fighting the 2010 Senate campaign. (It was signed by radio host Rusty Humphries but sent out by Angle.)

It read in part, “Harry Reid lied to you about Sharron Angle. Harry Reid lied to you about Mitt Romney. Harry Reid lied to you about Obamacare. And on, and on, and on, and on. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the lies. The lies about my friends, the lies about Conservatives, the lies about policies, the lies about my country!”

I wonder how many readers who grew up in today’s polarized politics will believe me when I write that the use of terms like “liar” and “lying” in public life are new. So new, indeed, that some observers are still taken aback by it.

My friend and former editor at Politix, David Mark, and his co-author of a book on political language, Chuck McCutcheon, wrote just last year: “Politicians generally shy away from calling each other liars outright. While not as taboo as it once was, it’s still considered bad form — at least in person — to accuse someone of out­-and­-out prevarication. (Just ask South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who famously cried ‘You lie!’ during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union Address and earned a formal rebuke from the House of Representatives.) Instead, today’s political figures use words like ‘disingenuous’ in describing an opponent they see as a hopeless twister of the truth.”

It should be noted that neither a mere rebuke from the House or an apology from Wilson prevented voters from rewarding him with a 9 percentage point re-election margin.

Granted, neither Angle nor Humphries are major figures, and the DCCC says things that politicians would not be willing to say themselves. Nevertheless, their pushing the bounds of decorum is just the latest indicator of boorishness creep.

What are good people outside the world of politics supposed to make of sentences in news stories such as “Romney says inaccurate attack ad is fair”?

Books of recent years have included titles or subtitles such as “The Lies of George W. Bush,” “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” “Big Bush Lies,” “Fraud/The strategy behind the Bush lies and why the media didn’t tell you.”

The fact is that language in politics has long since left the land of civility, encouraged by reader comments and tea partyers and Sharron Angles. And it often reflects not actual lying but one side’s interpretation of subjective information.

There was a time when people actually took pride in the fact that terms such as “liar” were outside decent discourse. Back when newspaper people were players in politics, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune ran an editorial titled “Governor Seymour as a liar” and drew a chastisement from a New York Times editorial: “As a matter of personal taste, we do not believe Mr. Greeley enjoys hearing men call each other liars, or d–d liars, or any of the other epithets … which come so easily into use at such encounters, and which, upon careful inquiry, may prove to be literally just and true. Why, then, does he put them into his newspaper?”

In his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, Adlai Stevenson said of his fellow Democrats, “You have argued and disagreed, because as Democrats you care and you care deeply. But you have disagreed and argued without calling each other ‘liars’ and ‘thieves,’ without despoiling our best traditions — you have not spoiled our best traditions in any naked struggles for power.”

The argument that the old days were better is not one that often sells. But it should be a source of some pride to the electorates and politicians of past years that even in the most divisive campaigns like Goldwater/Johnson and McGovern/Nixon, terms such as “lying” and “liars” were outside allowable discourse. And by the same token, today we should be ashamed that there is a market for the corroded language we increasingly hear and read today.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.