The “Big Lie” is a propaganda technique defined (by Adolf Hitler no less) as a lie so colossal that no one can believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. The principal of the big lie (defined by Joseph Goebbels) is that if one needs to “lie, one should lie big, and stick to it.” Furthermore, in the face of conflicting information you must keep repeating the lie, “even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”
A recent (and very clear) example of a big lie occurred after the Alaska State Legislature’s Troopergate report concluded that Governor Sarah Palin had violated state ethics laws and abused her power. Palin’s response was to claim straight-faced:
Well, I’m very very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing … Any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that.
Palin’s response is the kind of political “big lie” that George Orwell warned against. War is peace. Black is white. Up is down.
Palin repeated this lie several times on the campaign trail, even after it was widely reported as false.
Politicians (in general, not just Republicans) have used the Big Lie technique for so long that it is difficult for them to stop, even though the advent of the Web and YouTube make it easy to expose these lies. They even start to believe their own lies.
Eventually, even politicians will stop lying about simple facts (Troopergate, Clinton’s Bosnia Trip, etc.), but the Big Lie will still be used in situations where the lie cannot be easily dismissed. For example, McCain claimed repeatedly during his campaign that he would balance the federal budget by the end of his first term, repeating it even after the economic meltdown. Although this is basically impossible, it cannot be dismissed as a lie since it is about the future.
Which brings us to the whole point of this post. Between the economic meltdown, war, and the disastrous election, the “Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they’d take it off the shelf.” The (remaining) Republicans are now busily trying to figure out what to do about it — some want to move more toward the center while others want to double down and become even more conservative (divided roughly by whether one thinks that Sarah Palin helped the Republican party or hurt it).
But these discussions are meaningless unless the Republicans understand the fundamental reasons why their “brand” is so far in the toilet that even Joe the Plumber couldn’t reach it. Fundamentally, there are three main components of the Republican brand, and all three of them are lies. Big lies.
- Lie #1 (and most easily disproved) is that Republicans are the party of fiscal conservatives and smaller government. Around 20 years ago something killed off the “GOP deficit hawks” to the point where, starting with Ronald Reagan, all Republican presidents have run up record national deficits. Dubya’s spending has gone through the roof, and not just because of his two wars and the creation of the huge new Homeland Security Department. He also added expensive Medicare prescription drug benefits, a mission to Mars, and other new spending. The only thing Republicans still do is cut taxes, which is just pandering.
- Lie #2 is that Republicans are the party of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists. But despite talking big about banning abortion and gay marriage, the Republicans have done little to actually promote the causes that social conservatives hold dear. The problem here is that the Republicans have become addicted to using issues like abortion to mobilize their base. If the Republicans actually succeeded in making abortion totally illegal there would be a huge backlash, which would then mobilize the Democratic liberal base against them. Also note that the Bush administration used their power over judicial appointments and federal prosecutors to pursue political ends, not the ends desired by social conservatives. In short, the Republican party is using social conservatives.
- Lie #3 is that Republicans are the party of big business and free markets. But after eight years of deregulating business after business, just to have each of them collapse in turn (ending with the worst economic meltdown since the great depression) it is clear that Republican policies are not good for business, not even big business. If the Republicans actually believed in free markets, they wouldn’t have prohibited the government from negotiating Medicare drug prices. And they certainly wouldn’t have responded to the financial meltdown by nationalizing the biggest banks and insurance companies.
Regulation is not the opposite of free markets. The purpose of good regulation is to level the playing field, and thus create a free market with open competition (rather than a closed market where only big established players with government connections can compete). By favoring their cronies (such as big oil) the Republicans helped kill competition from new energy sources and new modes of transportation, but we now see that this has done more harm than good to Detroit automakers and big oil companies, not to mention hurting other businesses as energy prices soared.
Like a company whose reputation for good products has been tarnished by a series of unreliable ones, the Republicans will have to restore some believability to their brand by actually delivering on their promises. The important question is not whether the Republicans should move toward the center or more toward the right. The real question is when will they start walking their talk and building up some trust in their brand.
Or they can just keep lying, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
UPDATE: David Brooks has an interesting column in the NY Times that argues that the Republican Party cannot help but move to the right (and lose more elections), at least in the near future.
UPDATE 2: Frank Rich has a very enjoyable column in the NY Times about how the conservative crackup may be ugly, but as entertainment, it’s two thumbs up!