Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

November 10, 2012

Americans fail to demand better of politicians

By Mitchel Olszak
CNHI

— Who guards the guardians?

It's a question that dates back at least to ancient Rome. It refers to the notion that someone ought to be keeping an eye on the folks who wield power in society.

To some extent, it's the role of the press to guard the guardians (i.e., politicians) in our society. But to a larger degree, that task ultimately falls upon the citizens themselves.

I often tell people that the only thing newspapers really do is print words. It's up to others to read those words and respond. The most significant news story in the world is useless if no one bothers to read or react to it.

In a democratic society, it's essential that citizens serve as the guards of the guardians, demanding proper conduct. Otherwise, government can deteriorate into dictatorship.

Or it can unravel into an incompetent mess. Sort of what we have now.

In the field of journalism - along with certain non-profit or public interest organizations - a new line of work has arisen related to politics. It's called the fact checker.

It has become a mini industry, as statements by political candidates and campaign commercials are scrutinized for their content in terms of accuracy. Not surprisingly, fact checkers find fault with what politicians of all stripes are telling the American people.

It's not that these politicians are lying - at least not blatantly so. Instead, they massage the truth, put their own spin on reality, or leave out key details the public ought to know.

Considering all the charges and counter charges made in the recent presidential campaign - particularly in terms of who's giving the American people the straight story - you would think that fact checkers would be warmly welcomed by voters looking for clarity and accuracy.

But surveys suggest that's not the case. Information produced by fact checkers seems to have little impact on the electorate. And politicians take notice.

This is obvious when you look at the criticisms fact checkers made about assorted campaign ads. Often, the ads are dismantled by fact checkers, but the campaigns continued to run them. The declarations of fact checkers are dismissed as inconsequential.

Why? There are a couple of possibilities. One is that voters are every bit as partisan as the candidates. They don't want nuance or insight. They merely want confirmation of their ideological views and they reject everything else.

Another is that with fact checkers serving to discredit both parties, no one's left to believe in. When everybody's blowing smoke in your face, how do you locate an honest candidate?

Unfortunately, this tainted political environment allows the distortions to persist. The politicians have no incentive to tell the truth if the voters are throwing up their hands in defeat.

So neither party will tell you hard, ugly decisions have to be made with the federal budget, mainly because you don't want to hear that. Instead, voters latch on to ideologically pleasing rhetoric that implies the nation's fiscal problems can be resolved with a few relatively painless adjustments, and perhaps a little pixie dust.

The real fact is that Republicans and Democrats are both letting this nation down. And the American people are allowing it to happen.

- Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for The New Castle (Pa.) News, a CNHI sister publication.