The Bullshit Campaign

While writing this blog, I find myself treating the Republican Party with increasing ridicule and contempt. There are good reasons for this. They obstruct the legislative process, they smear opponents with outrageous claims, they propose tax “reform” that has no aim but to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else and—there’s no other way to say this—they lie all the time.

But lying is the wrong concept. Most of the time Republicans are not lying, they’re bullshitting.

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit, shows how it differs from lying. And it’s not just different, it’s worse than lying. The liar has to know what the truth is in order to conceal it, while the bullshitter just doesn’t care—he’ll say anything so long as it makes him look good and gets him closer to his goal. So, Mitt Romney, speaking in July at the VFW convention, accused President Obama of forcing a trillion dollars in budget cuts on the military when, in fact, it was his own party (with his encouragement!) that insisted on deep automatic cuts for the Defense Department and the rest of government—aka the “fiscal cliff”—if Congress failed to agree on sufficient cuts by the end of last December. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, seconded by the Daily Kos, called this the most “mendacious” moment (or, the “biggest lie”) in the campaign so far.

But, really, it goes beyond lying. It’s bullshit.

Often bullshit comes in the guise of cynicism. Paul Krugman argued recently that Republicans are running a totally cynical campaign. First, in Congress, they block anything President Obama proposes that would boost economic recovery or avoid further damage. Then, on the campaign trail, they loudly denounce the President’s “failure” to lead the country out of the economic crisis.

Krugman calls this cynicism. It’s a close call, because the cynic is like the bullshitter in not caring if what he’s saying is true or not. But they differ in their attitudes toward other people. The cynic has nothing but contempt for others: they’re too ignorant or stupid to call him on his deceit. But the bullshitter cares about what others think of him. He wants to impress them, so they’ll admire him. And vote for him.

By the way, Frankfurt’s publisher, Princeton University Press, placed a full-page ad for his book in the September 27 issue of the New York Review of Books. The caption: “Required Reading for the Fall Elections.”


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