Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Return of the Big Lie

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
The facts are well known. A recent ad by the Romney campaign ran a video allowing viewers to watch and hear the very words of Barack Obama: “If we keep talking about the economy we’re going to lose.” That quote closed a series of statements attributed to the President. But the quote was undated and, well, incomplete. It turned out that it had been delivered by Obama during the 2008 campaign. It read in full “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy we are going to lose.’”
Outraged Democrats protested the ad. “Neutral” commentators said it was “egregiously misleading” and a sign that the campaign in general was going to be rough. Romney refused to apologize. He said “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”--a quote that hovers somewhere between almost saying that he could identify similar misrepresentations from Obama and expressing identification with a base that is eager to have him run such lying attack ads. A senior advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, announced that the ensuing controversy worked to the advantage of Romney because it called people’s attention to the economy: “...their reaction was quite hysterical,” he said, “But that was the point.”
The original ad was not simply an instance of misrepresentation; it was a Big Lie. A Big Lie is a representation that not only attributes to the opponent things he did not say but joyously reverses what was actually said to express loyalty to its base and disdain for the opponent. A Big Lie is joyous not simply because it misleads. It is so because it speaks to a portion of its base who welcome and demand such misrepresentations even if they are exposed as misrepresentations. A Big Lie, then, is a BIG lie, a lie expressing a perverse symbiosis between leaders and audience that allows its effects to reverberate even after it has been exposed. Thus correction of a Big Lie is insufficient to counter it. We now have a rather long record of Obama being called a Muslim, a socialist, and a Kenyan who is not an American citizen; these widely circulated charges express the characteristics of the Big Lie. And we have a record of followers of Palin and Bachmann introducing editorial changes into Wikipedia entries to alter the record so their gaffes have the look of historical accuracy. Perhaps we should think a bit more about how a Big Lie works. 
A Big Lie works because the most intense devotees who receive it are eager to have it circulate widely even if and when they know at one level that the evidence points in the other direction. The repeated charge that Obama stimulus package–-which in fact was far too small--did not decrease the unemployment rate that would otherwise have arisen possesses some of these characteristics.
Adolph Hitler introduced the phrase into popularity. He did so in a vintage manner. He attributed it to Jews and the Marxists who, he said, blamed German generals for the loss of WWI instead of casting blame upon “betrayers of the fatherland”. He then said in Mein Kampf:
All this was inspired by the principle–which is quite true within itself–that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily...” 
Hitler only got it partly right. He universalized a tendency that varies significantly from place to place and time to time. And, at least in this statement, he does not emphasize enough how a big lie requires a constituency already primed to receive it at one level even when at another level they know it is a lie. A Big Lie speaks to multiple levels of self and culture, calling up a visceral will to believe among resentful constituencies that overwhelms their awareness at a more refined level that the evidence is at odds with that will. Even if the factual correction is admitted, a residue of distrust and vilification of the candidate is retained.
A Big Lie today contains a yet more complex, layered message. Yes, it expresses a campaign to increase intensity of support among a core constituency eager to vilify opponents. But it simultaneously amplifies a vague sense already there among inattentive moderates that politics itself has become dysfunctional. This asymmetrical combination endows the Big Lie with its contemporary power. Thus it was not surprising when the former Chair of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, in a recent edition of “Hardball”, refused to condemn the Romney ad. Instead, he treated it--if vaguely and without examples--as a generic sign that the campaign was intensifying on both sides. Politics is rough, Michael Steele says, so this sort of thing is to be expected from all parties as the campaigns proceed. 
Steele’s response may seem off base and banal at first hearing. But it actually performs asymmetrical functions for two different constituencies: it refuses to take back what their most ardent followers want to hear and it justifies Romney’s Big Lie to others by equating it with all statements that exaggerate or abstract from context. It thus retains the base while also speaking to inattentive moderates and “independents” who they need to conclude that politics in general is and must be dysfunctional. A dysfunctional politics, after all, encourages the inattentive to identify with the fantasy of unregulated markets pried free from a dysfunctional state. The Republican use of filibusters works in a similar way. They want people to forget (or never notice) that they are the ones who have used this tactic more than anyone else in American history, and they want to help them remember that there is a stalemate in Congress. The inattentive who respond to the second part of that message thus vindicate themselves in remaining inattentive. Such an effect increases the power of the right edge of the Republican base, a base that is primed already to respond to messages of aspirational fascism
There is an element of truth in what Steele says. That is part of its power. Both sides do misrepresent and simplify too often. That needs attention whenever it occurs. But to draw every instance of misrepresentation under the same umbrella is to recapitulate the Big Lie. Again, it justifies that mode of politics to a receptive base as it encourages moderates to either withdraw from politics or to internalize lies they are already tempted to believe. 
The politics of the Big Lie becomes viable in a society in which one segment of the populace welcomes it, another attributes it to politics in general to avoid having to think about what it portends, and a third fails to explore how to engage a world in which factual correction is insufficient to contemporary politics.
We form part of the third constituency. We have to learn how to challenge Big Lies as we remember how factual correction is pertinent but insufficient to the challenge. Correction is insufficient because there is never a vacuum on the infrasensible register of politics. We thus have to participate ourselves on that register without allowing our participation to contribute to the Big Lie. Perhaps John Stewart provides an example of how to proceed as he enacts image laden messages with a complex character. His messages expose lies; they suggest alternatives; and they disclose by parody how his own messages themselves also work on the infrasensible register of politics. 
I have tried to think about the indispensability, complexity and dangers of such a politics in “Experience and Experiment” and in some postings on this blog. John Protevi also engages this issue. In a world of 24 hour cable news and a society riven by the politics of ressentiment more reflective intervention is needed on this territory by those who seek to preserve the life as well as the form of democracy.


  1. Very insightful post, I greatly appreciated it. I think the "Big Lie" supplements that widely held claim that attention itself, rather than the quality of that attention, remains very important in determining the parameters of politics. As you note, Fehrnstrom doesn't care about whether or not the argument is legitimate: the "mere attention" on the economy is the point of the lie.

    One supplemental point: I think you should make more of how the "Big Lie" reassures partisans of the correctness of their original position, short circuiting what we imagine to be a dialectical process of political argument by claimjumping identity in a way that secures in advance subjects from challenges and reconfigurations. The mere appearance of "controversy" appears as one health of democracy: controversy remains possible. But the content of that controversy, as you say, is poisonous to democracy. Poisonous because it appeals in advance to settled identities, and even more pernicious because its truth functions as a naturalized totem for partisan subjects.

  2. Trying to combat Big Lies with facts is like trying to win a beauty pageant by talking about how you want to end world hunger.