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Columns Tom Baxter

When politics turns ghostly to voters, liars find a route to success

Image by Stefano Pollio via Unsplash.

By Tom Baxter

A phrase that a lady from Cartersville used in a newspaper interview last month has rattled around in my head for weeks now. As a description of what ails us, it’s elegantly troubling.

In one of those interviews newspapers use to flesh out the results of a poll they’ve taken, Charlotte Profit, 71, told Tia Mitchell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Congress seems to care little about the issues that concern her and her friends. The most she knows about her congressman, Barry Loudermilk, is what she’s seen on a yard sign, she said.

“Politics is a ghost entity to most of us,” Profit said.

That’s an interesting combination of the ephemeral and the specific. “Ghost entity” seems to suggest something that’s out of kilter with the way it should be, or maybe something that was never there at all, but needs to be. When used to describe our current politics, it implies that for many voters democracy is already dead.

What does the physical embodiment of a ghost entity look like? The phrase came back to mind not long after George Santos became the story of the hour.

Most politicians dissemble, and an alarming number lie. What makes the Santos story so fascinating is that he has tried, with a con-man flourish, to construct his entire political identity out of lies. He correctly assumed that all most voters would know about him would be what they read on a yard sign, and put together a bundle of lies that would fit what the yard signs said.

Santos isn’t the only member of this year’s freshman congressional class with a past that is at least partially constructed.

Family members and friends have disputed stories that Florida Rep. Anna Paulina Luna has told about her troubled childhood, religious background and cultural heritage. Even her mother, who has vouched for her daughter’s version, has said that her story is “layered and complex.”

Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles, who shouted “It’s your fault” when President Joe Biden brought up the Fentanyl problem in the State of the Union speech, claimed in his campaign last year to be an economist, a former law enforcement official and the chief operating officer of an international organization which battles human trafficking. His true resume, as revealed in post-election investigations, has turned out to be far short of those claims.

Various explanations have surfaced for this new wave of biographical lying, from the decline of print journalism and the politicization of television news to the growing practice of resume fraud. We should add to those the growing size of the population, which makes it less likely voters will have any direct contact with their representatives, and the fragmentation of social media into islands of the like-minded.

All those factors have combined to make it easier for outright liars to get away with misrepresenting themselves to voters. They have also made it harder for the politicians who are, for the most part, who they say they are to connect with their voters. Loudermilk, Ms. Profit’s representative, posts on Twitter frequently, but the great majority of his voters won’t see his tweets.

Those who do will see a lot of conservative talking points, but not much that will close the growing gap between average voters and the people who represent them. Loudermilk and most of those he serves with aren’t frauds, but to many of their voters they also have become part of that ghost entity of politics, a construction more of yard signs and tweets than flesh and blood.

I have seen too many tough old country people die to prematurely eulogize former President Jimmy Carter, who has gone into hospice at his home in Plains. But it’s hard to resist a few words about him when the general subject has to do with honesty and connecting with voters.

When Carter admitted in a Playboy magazine interview that he had at times lusted in his heart, some pundits suggested that he had been too honest for his own good. That’s a hoot, considering some of the things politicians freely own up to these days. To an electorate weary of coverups in 1976, that kind of personal honesty connected. If it didn’t serve him so well in the next election, that kind of personal honesty is something we sorely miss today.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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1 Comment

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