Beltway myth: "The left-wing base" vs. "the American people" on Iraq

Mara Liasson falsely claims that "the American people" only want to leave Iraq when "conditions on the ground" permit it.

Published July 7, 2008 11:58AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The Washington Establishment lies most brazenly when they want to claim that their own insulated, fringe views are shared by majorities of "the American people." To achieve that goal, there's just no limit on their willingness to go on television and make up facts. Look at what NPR's Mara Liasson said this weekend on Fox News Sunday about what "the American people" believe about the Iraq War:

HUME: But is [Obama] on the verge of changing on his long-stated promise that says, "The mission is to get out and I'll have them all out, all the forces out, in 16 months?"

LIASSON: I think the 16 months -- he is trying to get himself out of that box. Look, Samantha Power got in a lot of trouble . . . where she said, "Well, of course he's not going to just stick to some campaign promise of 16 months. He's going to look at the facts on the ground."

Well, that's what the American people want a commander in chief to do. That might not be what his left-wing base does. The question for Obama now is what kind of Iraq does he want to leave behind.

So Liasson just flatly stated that "the American people" -- as opposed to "the left wing base," which is (of course) a different animal altogether -- don't want to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months but instead favor withdrawal only when "facts on the ground" permit it. Bill Kristol added that "Obama's move to the center on Iraq shows how radical the Democratic Party's position on Iraq has been for the last year and a half . . . to pull the plug on a war effort in the middle of that effort."

It's obviously possible to argue -- as Liasson obviously believes -- that withdrawal according to an unconditional timetable is the wrong policy. But it's not possible to argue that "the American people" agree with her -- at least it's not possible to argue that with the smallest amount of honesty. All anyone has to do to know how false is her claim is just look at all -- not some, but all -- of the most recent data on that question (from here):

ABC News/Washington Post poll, June 12-15, 2008:

CBS News, May 30, 2008:

Quinnipiac University, May 8-12, 2008:

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation, June 26-29, 2008:

Time Magazine, June 18-25, 2008:

Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg, June 19-23, 2008:

USA Today/Gallup, March 13, 2008:

Even the one and only poll that is an outlier (when measured against other polls and prior findings of the same poll) -- the one that is the best possible poll for Liasson's position -- shows that it is her view that is the minority view and the view she attributes to the "left-wing base" that is the one held by "the American people." From NBC News/Wall Street Journal, June 6-9, 2008:

How much clearer could that be? The truth is exactly the opposite of what Liasson said. Americans want to withdraw from Iraq in accordance with Obama's timetable (if not faster) regardless of circumstances "on the ground" -- not conditioned on those circumstances. But because that's not the view Liasson and her establishment colleagues embrace, they just lie and claim that the majority view is the one held only by the "left-wing" fringe, while their own actually fringe view is the one embraced by "the American people" and thus defines the "Center."

This is the standard propaganda tactic of establishment media stars like Liasson, and she's hardly unique -- in this way or in any other. This is how they manipulate public opinion and coerce political officials to disregard the views of most Americans in favor of the fringe, establishment view. The views of the establishment pundit class are automatically labeled "the Center" even when they're rejected by majorities of "the American people." By contrast, views that are actually held by majorities but which the pundit class dislikes are demonized as those of "the Left." Thus, they argue, political candidates, in order to win elections, must embrace the views of the establishment and reject the view of most Americans. That's how a candidate "moves to the Center."

This is the central deceit that causes the war in Iraq to continue despite most Americans' wanting it to end for quite some time (because "only the Left" wants an end to war while "the Center" wants to say until we win). It's why crimes committed by the Washington elite go uninvestigated and unpunished (due to the lie that only "the Left" favors investigations and punishment while the Center" opposes investigations). It's how radical Bush policies such as warrantless eavesdropping, telecom amnesty and torture become the "Center" even when they're no such thing. This is the central premise of the Beltway class -- that any policies they dislike, any attempts to hold them accountable, are necessarily the rantings of "the Left."

The fact that Mara Liasson feels perfectly comfortable going on television and baldly uttering a clear-cut falsehood -- that only "the left-wing base" favors unconditional withdrawal while "the American people" only want to leave Iraq when "facts on the ground" allow it -- demonstrates how pervasive this deceit is. She likely isn't even aware that what she's saying is false. The establishment class is so self-absorbed, so inculcated with faith in their own wisdom, that they automatically think that whatever they and their comrades believe is, by definition, what "the American people" believe, even when all empirical data proves that the opposite is true.

UPDATE: Reader cr emails:

Great post as usual, but I have one minor issue with it. You write:

"[Liasson and her establishment colleagues] just lie and claim that the majority view is the one held only by the "left-wing" fringe"


"[Liasson] likely isn't even aware that what she's saying is false."

But of course if she isn't aware what she is saying is false, she technically isn't lying. True, as a journalist it's her job to know. So either way it is or at least ought to be scandalous.

FWIW, my guess is she actually doesn't realize she's spouting falsehoods. I suspect it is more a combination of lazy group think and subconscious denial of reality to promote her own views (not that that is any way exculpatory). Either way, IMHO it's almost always better to avoid charging individuals with lying. One can seldom be certain they know (as opposed to should know) what they are saying is false, and the charge can distract from the substance of the point.

His specific point (that one can't know if Liasson is "lying" here or is just recklessly mistaken) is a good one, as is his more general admonition that "it's almost always better to avoid charging individuals with lying" unless you can know for certain that they're aware that their false statements are false (though reckless disregard of the truth can be so extreme that it rises to the level of "lying"). That's a rule -- avoiding the unwarranted use of the term "lying" -- that I generally try hard to follow.

Although my wording here was sloppy, I wasn't trying to assert that Liasson specifically was lying here (since one can only speculate about whether she knows that what's she saying is false, and I actually speculated that she likely wasn't). Rather, my point was that the pundit tactic she employed (e.g.: "my beliefs are what The American People think and only 'the Left' disagrees") is a standard lie promulgated by the pundit class. Given how clear and definitive polling data on this question is, someone who says what she says is either consciously lying or is just completely indifferent to whether their statements are true.

UPDATE II: Regarding the issue raised in the Update about whether Liasson is guilty of "lying" or just "reckless disregard for the truth of her statements," Abraham Lincoln didn't recognize much if any difference between those two states of mind, as he made clear when chiding the Editor of a Springfield, Illinois newspaper in 1846:

I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood . . . .

Aspects of the law are in accord with Lincoln's view, as one can, for instance, be guilty of "fraud" not only by consciously lying but also by making statements with reckless disregard for whether they are true. Ultimately, this is semantics.

For pundits to make claims about what "Americans believe" without bothering to cite or even look at any evidence at least rises to the "reckless disregard" level (and, as I've documented many times before, David Brooks is the most frequent practitioner of this deceitful tactic). Regardless of whether it's "lying" or not, it's certainly inexcusable behavior for a "journalist" to assert claims about what "Americans believe" without having the slightest idea if it's true.

By Glenn Greenwald

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