Lies and Politics: An Inevitable Pairing?
There’s an old joke that goes, “How do you know if a politician is lying? … His lips move.” Lots of people would agree. Opinion polls show worrying levels of low confidence and trust in politicians. Our own prime minister, Brian Pallister, is seen by many as having a casual relationship with the truth.
In the age of the internet, social media, and more aggressive traditional media, and with a plethora of professional and amateur fact-checkers at work, one wonders why politicians lie and think they can get away with it.
Despite the popular belief that politicians regularly lie, there is little research on the subject and little consensus on what, if anything, should be done about the problem.
First we need to realize that there are many different forms of untruths. The PolitiFact website has developed a “truth meter” that places the statements of politicians on a continuum that ranges from the deliberate misrepresentation of facts on one end to incomplete statements on the other end.
The most obvious forms of lying seem to occur on social media, where there is little regulation and no set norms for responsible comment.
Harry Frankfurter, a moral philosopher, argued in his 1985 book On Bullshit that “BS” is something other than lies. Those who do without it are not fundamentally interested in the truth or falsehood of what they say; rather, their statements should convey a certain perception of the speaker to a part of the audience, without worrying about whether something is true at all.
At a time when many people live in a social media bubble, messages are often meant to cement support among their followers. An encyclopedia entry on Political BS might appropriately include a picture of Donald Trump.
It takes a healthy ego to be a political leader, and some politicians are dangerous narcissists who believe the world revolves around them. Complacency contributes to the belief that they are entitled to interpret events and encourages manipulation.
For many in politics, lying is a professional requirement, similar to the white lies told to a family member or close friend so as not to show offense. Likewise, false promises that should never be kept are seen as essential in order to compete with opponents who make their own improbable promises.
Many politicians still assume that the public does not want to hear the truth and cannot deal with it. This paternalistic attitude reflects a bygone era when the public was more willing to bow to the supposed greater knowledge and ability of elected and appointed officials.
It is true that far more people than in the past have disconnected from politics and no longer pay attention to developments in public life. However, this partly reflects a self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians deceive, falsify, simplify or omit information and then complain about a lack of public understanding.
In an era of constant campaigning and attempted news management, communicating with Spin has become a central part of the government process. Avoiding negative news and trying to acknowledge positive developments encourages politicians to present reality in a way that is flattering to them and the governments they lead.
With the help of surveys, focus groups and other methods of gathering information, executives prepare cost-benefit calculations of the political advantages and risks of honest, open and complete communication.
If politicians lie because they think they can get away with it, why don’t we just pass “Political Honesty” laws that make lies illegal? There is a long history of banning false advertising in the economic market, so why not do the same in the political market? In fact, as part of a broad movement towards attempts to regulate “political ethics” (many would consider the term an oxymoron), more than two dozen states have made it illegal to shut down on certain matters such as election times and places lies, the military veteran status of political candidates and the record of opponents.
Even such narrow laws have a hard time in courts for reasons of freedom of expression.
In Canada, legal challenges claiming that broken campaign promises were a breach of an oral contract have been dismissed several times by courts, most notably in a 2005 Ontario court ruling that alleged acceptance of the argument “had a deterrent effect.” “on the political speech. would encroach on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty and make our system of government dysfunctional.
Manitoba is the only Canadian jurisdiction with a code of conduct for political parties that was developed in 2000 following an election fraud scandal. It is based on party self-regulation and it doesn’t work. It is not even found on the parties’ websites. It contains melodious statements such as the following: “Political parties and members must endeavor at all times in their advertising, campaigns and promotional material to be accurate and to avoid misleading or misleading statements.”
However, there are no monitoring and enforcement provisions.
When it comes to political lying, we seem to have to rely on politics to ensure the truth.
Paul G. Thomas is Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba.