Every couple of years when election season heats up, I write a column in defense of politicians.
Don’t judge politicians so harshly, I argue. Yes, some are corrupt and some are liars, but it ruins democracy to paint them all with the same monochrome spray can. Not all politicians are ignorant and incompetent, I tell voters.
Perhaps this year I should switch tactics and tell politicians not to judge voters too harshly. Yes, we voters have made a hash of representative government, but we aren’t all ignorant and incompetent.
Such dispiriting thoughts came last week as I was trying to track down a rumor and ran across a Montana Facebook page for Donald Trump. A few posts down was a picture of Hillary Clinton with this quotation attributed to her: “I will get the NRA shut down for good if I become president. If we can ban handguns we can do it. — Hillary Clinton, interview with the Des Moines Register, Aug. 8, 2015.”
Directly beneath was a portrait of George Washington, with this quote attributed to him: “When government takes away citizens’ right to bear arms, it becomes citizens’ duty to take away government’s right to govern.”
In her secret heart of hearts, Clinton may well wish the NRA would shut down. But no matter how much you may dislike her, you surely don’t think she’s dumb enough to say that to the Des Moines Register, not even if she were injected with truth serum.
And I’m not that familiar with the writings and speeches of George Washington, but I have some notion of what he sounded like. And that quote did not sound anything like the ornate and stately 18th century prose of the Washington I thought I knew.
Sure enough, it took about five minutes of Internet surfing to find that both quotations were bogus. But that post, obviously put up by people interested in and supposedly knowledgeable about politics, has gone unchallenged for a week.
I felt no better after reading Monday’s Billings Gazette. The first letter to the editor contained this passage: “After WWII we were the most respected country in the world, also the most powerful. What happened? Two words: Congress, politicians. … We are between $18 and $20 trillion in debt. Why? Government gives it all away.”
Actually, the highest ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product in U.S. history came during the Truman administration—right after World War II.
It’s true that a survey by the Reputation Institute last year ranked Canada as the “most admired” country in the world, with the United States finishing a distant 23rd. But the list was dominated by left-leaning Scandinavian countries, not exactly the beauty contest we would want to win.
And a solid two-thirds of the world holds a favorable view of us, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Besides, when you’re in trouble, who you gonna call? Canada or its rough-hewn big brother, beyond all dispute still the world’s most badass nation?
A second letter began this way: “The national Democratic Party with its liberal/progressive/socialistic ideology has, in the last seven plus years, dragged our constitutional republic into a money spending spree … .”
Pretty standard rhetoric, but is it true? Not even close. The Obama administration did ramp up spending to fight off the Great Recession of 2008, but since then government spending has returned to historical levels.
According to usgovernmentspending.com, federal government spending cost 22.4 percent of GDP in 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s glory years. At the peak of federal spending in 2009, when spending was buoyed by unemployment compensation and food stamps, it cost us 23.8 percent of GDP.
Such misinformation has become so rife in American political debate that it’s no wonder politicians have trouble getting their arms around the truth. According to PolitiFact, the fact-checking website, nearly three-fourths of Donald Trump’s statements that it has checked are “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” That’s worse even than the record of his chief opponent, “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.’”
By contrast, fewer than a third of Hillary Clinton’s checked statements have been found mostly false or worse. And she probably has the worst reputation for honesty of all the candidates.
But when voters tune out the truth, it’s hard to expect politicians to keep serving up facts. We voters have conjured up a world where America is weak, vacillating, failing and corrupt. In our minds, we are teetering on the brink of disaster, contrary to all available evidence.
So to the honest, capable and incorruptible politicians out there, an apology is due. We, the voters, are sorry we have surrounded you with the boobs and losers we have elected. You deserve better. And you will get it, just as soon as we get better.