The conventional wisdom is that the electorate is weary of slick
politicians and just wants candidates to tell the truth. These are
lofty-sounding sentiments but I’m not convinced.
In an interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume, pollster Frank Luntz
explained that voters are drawn to the campaigns of Bill Bradley and
John McCain because of their “straight talk.”
I have no doubt that Luntz, a superb pollster, is accurately
describing the findings of his voter interviews. But I do doubt that the
people he was interviewing were being completely honest with themselves.
That is, I have come to believe that far too many voters don’t
necessarily want to be told the truth. They prefer to be told only what
they want to hear.
So whether voters like straight talk depends on what the meaning of
“straight talk” is. If by “straight talk” we mean the sanctimonious
condemnation of all politicians and the system as corrupt, then yes,
many love to hear that. That doubtlessly accounts for much of Bradley’s
and McCain’s popularity.
But if we define “straight talk” as “the truth,” then I’m not sure
voters care much for it. A few examples will suffice.
Many voters seem to respond favorably to demagogic rhetoric
advocating stricter gun control laws every time another massacre occurs
involving firearms. Pandering politicians calling for tighter measures
are lauded, even though common sense demands the conclusion that more
laws wouldn’t have prevented the tragedies.
Similarly, Bradley and Gore are mopping up disenchanted voters with
their promises of campaign finance reform, despite the fact that their
proposed solutions will never come to fruition because they are
So in these cases, and countless others, are voters craving the truth
or something else?
I have no doubt that people disdain “double-talk.” They want
candidates to address issues directly and not talk around them. They
prefer politicians who talk clearly and unambiguously. But they don’t
necessarily prefer that the content of those “straight” remarks be
Can anyone really doubt that Dr. Alan Keyes speaks from the heart?
That he speaks the truth? But does the public always want to hear what
he has to say? No, because much of it is unpleasant and to some extent
an indictment of them.
Keyes has been warning of the moral crisis that pervades this nation.
He recently told an assembly of students that violence in schools is
merely a symptom of a larger problem: moral decay. “It is not a
consequence of guns in the hands of children, but an absence of God in
our hearts.” If Americans can so casually kill the unborn innocent, he
asked, why should they be surprised to find their offspring murdering
one another in school?
In this respect, Keyes reminds me of the Old Testament prophet,
Jeremiah. Jeremiah repeatedly indicted Israel for willfully abandoning
God and worshipping idols. He prophesied that judgment would follow.
Jeremiah’s admonitions were met with threats on his life and later he
was beaten, put in stocks, imprisoned and placed in an empty well, left
Keyes has not been beaten or left to die, but his words are heartily
rejected by those who don’t want to hear. Even some conservative
commentators are referring to his ideas as “nutty” and “extreme.”
Keyes is only an extremist if lying and circumlocution have become
the norm for politicians. He is just saying things that make many
people, including Republicans, uncomfortable. People don’t want to be
told that their society is ailing morally because they know they have a
responsibility for its condition and its healing. It’s much easier to
deny the problem.
Keyes is also saying that we should return to our constitutional
roots. That conservative message can only be labeled extreme if we
acknowledge that we have radically abandoned those roots — another
Keyes’ message is striking a responsive chord with many voters, but
he’s far from leading the pack. Yet he’s talking straight and telling
the truth. Just like Jeremiah.
So next time we hear the glib line that voters just want to be told
the truth we should not accept it unquestioningly. Instead, we should
probably ask ourselves whether indeed we can handle the truth.