There is an exceptional amount of lying in Washington these days, and our media and politicians are entranced by it. Lies must achieve extraordinary bulk and quality to impress the sport’s most ardent practitioners: Only a particularly nasty outbreak of mendacity could draw Washington’s attention to a subject it knows with such intimacy and depth.
Most Americans are unsurprised. Long ago, they learned lies are the oxygen of the political world. They know the phrase “political deception” is a redundancy, like “false pretense,” “free gift,” or “foreign imports.”
Most electoral lies, they’ve found, are dandruff on the body politic, pedestrian deceits they can brush unremarkably from their shoulders. Besides, Mark Twain’s dictum that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” is no longer true: A tiny tweet can hunt down the ordinary political lie in a mouse-click in our hyper-connected world.
Big lies are tougher prey. They are protected by their boldness, because most people find it difficult to believe others would lie about something so big, instead of “little white lies.” Then, then a noble purpose cloaks the Big Lie, when we want it to be true, it grows exponentially attractive. It becomes the unchallenged truth, as evident as the law of gravity, as pervasive as our atmosphere, as inescapable as rent.
Our politics soaks in a Big Lie today. It is the lie that Washington can do the work of every American with only a legislative wish.
Cast your ballot and relax. Washington is the first, best, and only solution to every problem. A secure and fruitful society does not have to be earned by each of us with the individual sweat, discipline, and imagination that cultivates a better culture. If we demand it, Washington can decree it.
Pass a law: That’s all governing ourselves requires. We no longer need to roll up our sleeves and work, bottom-up, to earn a growing economy, a just society, or a stronger nation. What we do in life is less important than the politicians we elect.
The institutions that used to help govern our lives—our families, business, churches, charities, and other mediating institutions—none of them can be trusted. Our politics has no place for them. The only implements in Washington’s toolbox are the collective state, its industrial-age bureaucracy, and a man-made Bible full of shiny, new, legislative prayers.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells us, “I have a plan for that,” regardless of the malady in question. Like a huckster selling patent medicine, Warren claims socialism’s old, top-down, artificial solutions will, for the first time, make our lame government walk again.
Sen. Bernie Sanders tells the same gargantuan lie: His complex set of laws, programs, and regulations will protect the little guy—when we know only the big guys, who can afford pricey lawyers and lobbyists, can win at Bernie’s game.
Why worry, when another Democratic contender tells us more money, with more strings attached, will fix our schools, although they are already the world’s most expensive? Or that the same government that has undone our inner cities can repair them, by doing more of what brought them to shame?
The Big Lie ennobles the cast of “Morning Joe” when they call to ban assault weapons, even though there is no gun with which you can’t assault another human being. The Big Lie defends a Democratic presidential candidate when he promises that extending background checks to friends, family members, and gun shows would have “done a lot” to help prevent mass murder in El Paso and Dayton. After all, “something must be done,” preferably by someone else.
The Big Lie walks again when Democrats tell us that Baltimore is a paradise beyond criticism: No Democrat can acknowledge the failure of legislative wish-making. How could they? That is what they sell us.
The Big Lie bans paper straws and old lightbulbs with the modest promise to save the planet. It claims the Green New Deal will be a self-fueling, perpetual-motion engine of prosperity. Laws are all we need to “end gun violence forever,” erase sexual harassment or make us love our neighbors instead of shooting them.
The alternative to the Big Lie is not anarchy. It is not reckless libertarianism. Yes, there are things Washington can and must do. Capitalism has never existed without the restraint of government. But is government best that governs everything?
The Big Lie says if big, old, industrial-age government is capable of constructing bridges and interstate highways, it must be equally good at building better people. Yet the opposite is true: When we give up the responsibility to do good, we surrender the opportunity to be good, and our society frays.
The Big Lie does not require accountability or accomplishment. It does not ask for sacrifice or effort. It only needs noble intentions. That reduces our politics to theater, playing under a fraudulent marquee.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Tony Award-winning 1960 musical, “Camelot” starred Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, and a young Julie Andrews. The play was based upon “The Once and Future King,” T.H. White’s romantic novel about the pursuit of nobility in King Arthur’s court.
In the play’s key musical number, Burton, as King Arthur, sings about “Camelot,” a land where the rhythms of nature are no obstacle to the King’s demands: “It’s true. It’s true. The Crown has made it clear. The climate must be perfect all the year. The rain must never fall till after sundown, by eight, the morning fog must disappear…”
Washington sings the same song today but with more naivety: Camelot was only a play. Outside the theater’s doors, even when it is enshrined in legislative ritual, wishing isn’t as productive as work. “In short, there’s simply not, a more congenial spot, for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot!”