To say that political rhetoric has been heating up over the past several years would be a massive understatement. 

As the differences between the two parties have grown greater in number, the language used by both has grown stronger. This, in and of itself, is not inherently bad. However, this heated rhetoric has been accompanied by an increasingly common use of half-truths and outright falsehoods in political discourse. Politicians should know better than to tell anything but the whole truth, but the responsibility for bringing truth back to political discourse belongs also to the media who report the lies and the public who believe them.

Of the 19 most recent claims rated by PolitiFact Wisconsin, one has been rated true, five have been rated half-true, five have been rated mostly false, five have been rated false and two have been rated “pants on fire.” This is not a good track record. In the interest of presenting the entire truth, I’ll be clear that I’m not implying only one out of every 19 claims by politicians are true – clearly PolitiFact is interested in fact-checking dubious statements. However, other states, like Ohio, have had five out of 18 statements rated true. While it’s a problem all across the country, the lack of truth in politics is especially problematic in Wisconsin.

It’s important to note that less-than-true statements come from both sides of the political spectrum. On one day, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk claims that women no longer can “do something about it” if they are experiencing pay discrimination – false. The next, Gov. Scott Walker asserts, “We gave every public employee in the state the freedom to choose whether or not they want to be in a union” – false. Then Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett makes the accusation that Walker “has caused Wisconsin to lose more jobs than any other state in the country”
– half-true. Not to be outdone, Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, alleges that President Barack Obama “has doubled the size of government since he took office” – pants on fire. The problem is not limited to either party.

So whose responsibility is it to fix the problem? It starts with the politicians themselves – after all, they’re the ones making the statements in the first place. They should know better. As leaders entrusted with making decisions for the people who elected them, it’s entirely reasonable to expect them to tell the truth. However, one could argue that politicians are only doing what gets them elected.

If voters started to hold politicians accountable for lying at the polls, then those in office would learn how to tell the truth very quickly. So some of the responsibility falls to voters, as well, to hold politicians accountable for what they say. On the other hand, not every voter has the resources and time at his or her disposal to tell fact from fiction.

Most of all, the responsibility falls on news media. The media are how voters get their information and if the media allow politicians to lie, it becomes hard for voters to tell what’s true from what isn’t. Of course, some statements are neither fact nor fiction but opinion and the media have no responsibility for those. However, when politicians claim, for example, that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, the media need to add that this is simply not true.

There is a valid worry that this could lead to the politicization of reporting. If done correctly, though, this need not be the case. It’s perfectly acceptable for the news media to stay out of contentious issues on which the jury is still out. But if Walker says that all Wisconsonites can choose whether or not to be in a union or if Falk says that women have no way of seeking compensation if they experience pay discrimination, the media need to call them out.

None of this will be easy. It requires efforts by all parties to help restore truth and integrity to political discourse. But if politicians live up to their duties as public servants, voters recognize the power of their vote and the news media appreciate their ability to propagate lies, it can be done. A more fact-based approach to political discourse will lead to better policy and better governing,

Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in math and economics.