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Will Lies Win?

If there is one thing that most Americans can agree on, it is that this year's presidential election campaign featured an endless stream of lies and falsehoods that have made normal politics effectively impossible. Unfortunately, those peddling a "Big Lie" sometimes have the advantage.

PRINCETON – The strange and dispiriting US presidential election campaign has been marked by an absence of substantive debate and a deluge of lies. As Joe Biden said of Donald Trump in the first televised debate, “The fact is that everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie. I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”

In politics, the more that lies are employed, the more grounds there are for each side to accuse the other of lying. A spiral of dishonesty ensues, making rational debate impossible. With each lie begetting more lies, normal politics comes to be replaced by a politics of exception. We know this because the phenomenon isn’t new or exclusive to the twenty-first century.

History is full of warnings for a society swamped by lies. Shakespeare described the problem brilliantly in his plays. In As You Like It, the court jester Touchstone describes a seven-stage increase in the vehemence of retorts: the fourth is the “Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct.”

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