President Obama, almost everyone now acknowledges, relied on misinformation to promote the Affordable Care Act while it was being debated by the country. He told voters that they could keep their existing health coverage if they liked it. That promise, however, was inconsistent with the actual structure of the law, as was revealed last fall by its implementation.
The consequences of this falsehood are grave. Under the law regulating the ordinary transactions of ordinary citizens, fraud or misrepresentation would void a contract. Contracts are supposed to arise from genuine consent, which is not present when one of the parties deliberately misleads the other. The Affordable Care Act is not, of course, a contract and is not governed by such laws. Nevertheless, the moral principle underpinning such laws would seem applicable even to products of the political process.
One may say that the most consequential federal legislation in decades enjoys only an impaired legitimacy according to fundamental American principles. Those principles emphasize the consent of the governed, but this law was enacted on the basis of a deception that is inconsistent with consent.
Most dismaying is the limited public reaction to the president’s now evident dishonesty. His approval ratings have fallen, and public trust in him has cratered. This is appropriate but hardly sufficient. No significant public figure has called for his resignation and no similar outrage has been expressed. This bodes ill for the future of genuine self-government. A people that cannot feel real outrage about being legislatively duped cannot, in the long run, exert any real control over the direction of public policy.
Given what is at stake in this relative indifference to President Obama’s dishonesty, we must ask: How did we get here? How did American culture grow so dangerously accustomed to falsehood?
We might point in the first place to recent political history, which traces the gradual development of an increasing presidential immunity with regard to dishonesty. Nixon was in danger of being impeached in part for lying to the American people, and the prospect of his removal was so certain that he chose to resign. A generation later Bill Clinton lied to the American people, was impeached but not removed, and survived in office until the end of his term. Now Barack Obama has lied—and arguably about matters more consequential than those that led either Nixon or Clinton to depart from the truth—with no consequences other than some temporary complaining.
This history, however, provides not so much an explanation of how we got here as a description of our progress (or rather decline). This history shows that the public has gotten more tolerant of political deception, but it does not tell us what was happening in the culture that would lead to such tolerance. We must ask ourselves: what was going on in the lives of ordinary Americans that would foster this decline in seriousness about truth-telling?
In an earlier essay for Public Discourse, I argued that the sexual revolution has been advanced by a certain kind of dishonesty, since its promoters have won so many of their victories by denying, or distracting the public from, the consequences that would follow from the principles it laid down. The use of that dishonesty would certainly foster a casual attitude toward truth-telling among political activists, and may, to that extent, have contributed to a culture of lying. Still, since these tactics were used by the few and to deceive the many, we do not here have an explanation of how the many came to be so indifferent to the truth. For an explanation, we must consider the consequences of the sexual revolution in the lives of ordinary Americans. Those consequences, I contend, have necessarily undermined our commitment to truth.
First, consider the results of the popularization of abortion. Abortion has long been presented as a necessary adjunct of sexual liberation. Sexual liberation means that human beings must have maximum opportunity to pursue sexual pleasure for its own sake. Nature, however, presents a problem: sex is apt to lead to pregnancy. However rewarding pregnancy and child-rearing may be to a morally mature human being, they are undeniably arduous and demanding. Therefore, on a hedonistic calculus—and this is the calculus on which sexual liberation operates—the natural consequences of sex tend to spoil the pleasure of sex. A life spent pursuing sex as a physical pleasure can never succeed unless pregnancy can be avoided. Hence the need for artificial contraception, and, when that fails, for abortion as the birth control of last resort.
In order for this solution to work, however, we need to believe that abortion is morally unproblematic. And this consideration returns us to the present point about sexual liberation and the culture of lies: we cannot believe that abortion is morally unproblematic without all manner of deception. The most obvious argument, and one on which the partisans of abortion have relied a great deal, is that a fetus is not a human being. This claim is obviously false: what other kind of being could it possibly be? More to the point, everyone knows that this claim is false, even people who invoke it when they feel the need to justify abortion. Why else do almost all people, even defenders of abortion, refer to a pregnant woman’s “baby” in cases when they know the woman is not going to seek an abortion but is planning to carry the pregnancy to term and take on the duties of motherhood?
An alternative argument has it that a fetus is a human being but is not a human person. In this view it is said that abortion is morally unproblematic because moral respect attaches to personhood and not mere humanity. Since a fetus, though a human being, cannot have self-consciousness or concern for the future, it is not due the protections that we naturally accord a fully mature human person. Once again, the problem with this argument is that almost nobody really believes it, so that its constant reiteration as a defense for abortion necessarily has a corrosive effect on our respect for the truth.
If the personhood argument were correct, then it would be just as moral to practice infanticide as it is to procure an abortion, since newborn children have no more sense of self-consciousness or concern for the future than do late-term fetuses. But, aside from a few theorists in the academy, virtually everybody agrees not only that infanticide is wrong but that it is murder. The personhood argument, then, is merely an expedient to justify abortion. In other words, it is a dishonest argument, and its dishonesty is sufficiently evident that its popularity must undermine our society’s commitment to truth.
A similar problem arises in relation to divorce. Divorce is also essential to the project of sexual liberation. If a relationship, even a marriage, becomes sexually unsatisfactory to one of the partners, sexual liberation demands that he or she be free to seek happiness elsewhere. This view has succeeded to such an extent that the country has universally accepted the practice of no-fault divorce in which either party may dissolve the marriage without the consent of the other.
Our culture of divorce, however, is also a culture of deception. The traditional marriage vows—by which a married couple proclaim that they will remain married until they are parted by death—are still commonly used. And yet they are used in a context in which everybody knows that divorce is accessible, and that many might decide to resort to it. The conclusion seems unavoidable that many Americans get married, using the traditional formulations, knowing all along that they might go back on their word and seek a divorce later if they think it necessary. That is to say, they make a promise to each other in the most solemn way possible—in traditional prescribed language, in front of their families and friends, and often in a house of worship—believing as they do so that the promises made are not really binding. Leaving aside the question of the morality of divorce itself, we can certainly say that people who behave in this way are enacting a farce that cannot help but undermine their respect for truth telling.
The sexual revolution has succeeded in making abortion and divorce an ordinary part of the lives of large numbers of Americans. Yet these are activities that we apparently cannot conduct without deceiving ourselves and those closest to us. It is small wonder, then, that we cannot feel much ire at the misrepresentations of politicians. Yet the capacity for that ire is essential to our ability to carry on genuine self-government.
Those who are still capable of being outraged by President Obama’s misrepresentations are right to be outraged. But they are mistaken if they think he or the Democratic Party or politics is the sole cause of the problem. It goes deeper, and it will take a more profound renovation of our culture to restore truthfulness to its proper place and establish political freedom on a more secure foundation.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.