“Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?” That’s a line a Republican friend used to employ to point out how politicians used misdirection and deception to convince voters that facts didn’t matter. He used that line as a source of humor. It was funny 30 years ago. Today, not so much.
It is indisputable that politicians have long shaded the truth in the effort to sway voters their direction. Sometimes, it was a matter of packaging the truth.
Let me give you an example. When Evan Bayh was governor, he opposed a Republican plan to cut the auto excise tax. He later learned how popular the plan was and suddenly came up with a similar plan of his own. I went on television and reported that the Democratic governor had “flip-flopped.”
Bayh went over the heads of his communications staff and called me at home that evening to take issue with my story. He did not challenge the facts of it but rather the use of the term “flip-flopped.” He didn’t make reference to my “lying eyes” but that was the thrust. It all seems so innocent now.
We have entered an age where outright lies are so commonplace, it is hard to trust anything said by any politician.
Donald Trump has lied more than 25,000 times, according to fact-checkers at The Washington Post who say he now lies more than 50 times a day. What’s more troublesome is the others who have picked up the habit. They lie for him and for themselves.
Politicians no longer shade the truth. They reject it and they encourage us to reject it, too. Political analysts who once made a living explaining the nuances behind the actions of politicians now simply declare truth or lie.
Commentators on cable news repeat the lies. Social media spreads them. Fact-checkers endure personal attacks, and civility has become a rare commodity.
That is the Donald Trump legacy.
Why did this happen? Maybe we’ve all been naive.
The classic social studies question for elected officials is this: Do you vote your conscience, or do you vote the will of your constituents? Yet it has never been that simple.
Elected officials usually cast the vote that is most likely to help them preserve power. So, Bayh opposed a cut in the auto excise tax because he thought preserving a budget surplus was a bigger priority. But when he learned voters were fonder of a tax cut, he proposed one as a matter of self-preservation.
U.S. Sen. Mike Braun acknowledged in December that Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election, but in January joined an effort to challenge the Electoral College results. He flip-flopped.
You can be sure that, in the meantime, he read some private polling data that showed his popularity dropping because he told the truth. In his case, that would matter most among GOP primary voters who might someday face a choice between Braun and a current member of Congress who supports the Electoral College challenge. So, truth goes out the window.
Biden campaigned for president saying that America could not withstand a second Trump term. I happen to agree with that. The question now is, can America recover from the only Trump term?
The answer depends on voters learning that their eyes are not lying to them.•
Shella hosted WFYI’s “Indiana Week in Review” for 25 years and covered Indiana politics for WISH-TV for more than three decades.
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