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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Why the Truth Still Matters

Editor’s note: A version of this opinion piece by our director, Brooks Jackson, first appeared on the website of the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper under the headline “Fact-checking the truthiness of the 2012 campaign” and is re-posted here with permission.

Let’s face it, voters love to hear falsehoods.

Mitt Romney proclaims that President Obama’s health care law is a “federal takeover of the U.S. health care system,” and his supporters approve. Obama’s people nodded in agreement when the president said “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”

But both claims are false.

The truth about Romney’s claim is that the federal government accounted for 43.6 percent of all U.S. health care spending in 2009, before the law was signed, and government actuaries predict that in 2015, when the law is fully effective, that will rise to 47.4 percent. What’s more, much or most of that 3.8 percentage point increase would have happened anyway as the postwar baby boom generation reaches age 65 and goes on Medicare. So the law is no “takeover.” Rather, it’s a modest, incremental change in the existing system.

The truth about Obama’s claim is that under the new law, about 3 million to 5 million fewer persons will obtain health coverage from their employers — including some employees who will drop coverage voluntarily. And though it’s quite unlikely, the number could be as high as 20 million, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. So lots of people won’t be able to keep the plan they like, and will have to go shopping for another.

And these are just two of the bogus claims being fed to voters in the 2012 presidential election. Some other recent examples:

All those statements are false, or grossly distorted.

And there’s plenty more where those whoppers came from. Romney’s job-creation record in Massachusetts is either the best or worst in the nation, depending on which side is spinning the numbers. Similarly, his supporters exaggerate his record of job creation as head of Bain Capital, while Obama and his allies engage in lemon-picking Bain’s worst failures.

Both sides dissemble about the nation’s worst fiscal problems. Romney complains of huge deficits and rising debt and an “inferno” of spending he attributes to Obama, ignoring the fact that revenues are also low by historical standards. And Obama, while trashing Romney’s suggestions, proposes nothing to avoid a 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits that the system’s trustees say is looming in 2033 unless changes are made.

And all this is mild compared with the savage and malicious lies circulating on the Internet and in social media. It is not true, for example, that the new health care law will impose a 3.8 percent tax on the sales price of every home, or that it will require Medicare premiums to double, or that Muslims will be exempted from the requirement to obtain coverage.

Suffice to say, deceit is all too common in the 2012 campaign.

It’s easy to blame the politicians who say these things. And at FactCheck.org, we certainly don’t excuse them; we see our mission as holding politicians accountable for their falsehoods. But politicians aren’t the only ones responsible.

Consider: If unpleasant truths would get candidates elected, they would state them frankly. But they seldom do that, because so few of us in the public want to hear unpleasant truths. Stating such things is considered a gaffe.

Furthermore, humans naturally filter out evidence that weighs against what they want to believe. It’s called “confirmation bias,” and we all have it. So candidates tell us what we want to hear.

Political campaigns are not public-policy seminars. The candidate’s goal is not to inform, but to persuade and motivate. Candidates make false claims, and grossly exaggerate, because they believe that fires up their supporters and triggers the biases of potential supporters.

This has been going on for a long time. Lying to the public was common in the ancient Greek democracy 2,500 years ago. One classics scholar summarized: “In short, nothing aside from the knowledge of the audience and the limits of plausibility restrained the orator from inventing falsehoods and distorting the truth.” The same could be said today.

And yet, facts and truth still matter. It’s a fact that federal spending remains at its highest level relative to gross domestic product than at any time since 1946, however much Democrats resist and demonize attempts to restrain the growth of entitlements. It’s also a fact that federal revenues are at their lowest level since 1950, however much Republicans deny that tax cuts have contributed to the unsustainable deficits and growing debt they decry. If the U.S. is not to end up like Greece, both those truths must be considered.

Sensible voters can still decide elections – but they shouldn’t expect the unbiased truth from 30-second TV spots, or partisan talking points repeated endlessly on cable networks. But to be sensible, a voter must first ask, “Does that claim sound too good – or too much like what I want to hear — to be true?” That’s where the search for the sometimes unwelcome truth begins.

— Brooks Jackson