Political Lies and Political Liars

Lord Alexander Chung-sik Finkle-McGraw is instructing John Percival Hackworth, a relatively new member of the New Victorians, on “hypocrisy.” Is hypocrisy a big deal, Finkle-McGraw wants to know, or is it the way it was back at the end of the 20th Century, “the queen of the vices.”
I want to work, today, with the idea that what Finkle-McGraw tells Hackworth about hypocrisy is just what someone needs to tell American voters about lying. If I had the wisdom Finkle-McGraw has, I would do it myself, but…alas. [1]

The occasion for this reflection is the August 7 article by Sheryl Gay-Stolberg in the New York Times. She is anti-Trump, of course. That goes without saying. The New York Times, editorial staff, reporters, and columnists are all anti-Trump. But this article by Gay-Stolberg isn’t about that at all. She is wondering, and so am I, “ whether Mr. Trump, in elevating the art of political fabrication, has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders.”

Have we changed?

That’s the way she puts the question in her last paragraph and I think it is a good question, but it is not my question. What I am wondering is what kinds of changes in the American public have made lying on the Trump scale, acceptable.

liar 4Let’s take it for granted that people like President Trump do whatever they feel is in their best interest. [2] And I take it for granted that people listen to what they think is in their best interest and believe what they think it is in their best interest to believe. And I think it has always been like that. I think that characterizes the presidencies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. [3]

If that is true, it is just as potentially revealing to ask the question from the voter side as it is from the perpetrator side. So Gay-Stolberg’s summary might be rephrased this way. “Whether Americans, in what they are willing to tolerate from their leaders, have forever changed how Mr. Trump [politicians] are elevating the art of political fabrication.”

Have the structures of the political world changed?

This analysis points to some of the structural features of contemporary politics that would have to be taken into account in a more thorough assessment. I will just refer to them here because I am not going to deal with them myself. Here are three.

The media environment is now fragmented. There is no one to play the “respected elder” role that Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley did. And in the multiplicity of sources, everyone seems to have a first glance claim to credibility.

The electoral environment has now changed so that in many districts the principal contest is the primary election, not the general election. That means that incumbents must guard against challenges from the extreme end of the partisan scale—conservative candidates from the extreme right, liberal candidates from the extreme left [4]. So the old days, when the general election forced candidates toward the center, are over. The rewards are mostly from the extremes and candidates use the extreme language that will attract supporters and contributors.

In such environments, it is harder to tell what a lie is. More and more political meetingsliar 6 remind me of the “pep rallies” of my high school days. Speaker after speaker praises the home team and vilifies the next team on the schedule. Coaches will say things like, “And we are going to win because we are winners” with complete impunity. It doesn’t imply anything about the actual prospects of the home team in the coming game. We may have lost every game so far and be confidently expected to lose this one as well. No one takes what appears to be a prediction as a statement with any factual content at all. It is just a way of praising ourselves and fortifying ourselves against whatever reality will bring.

Political contexts were once different. If there is a center to the media that is respected and if the crowds being addressed are moderate and mixed, then there is no “we” of the kind the coach presupposes in his pep talk. And that means that things that appear to be statements of fact need to be at least plausible. [5]

Finally, the customs governing political discourse have changed. It was once a moderately funny joke to cite Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th Century wit who said,”An Ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The Ambassador is “us” and he is sent off to lie to “them.” That standard has come home and it isn’t even moderately funny anymore.

Politicians lie more now because there is more reason for them to lie—see the point above about playing to the extremes of your party—and there is less reason to fear denunciation. According to the standard of small communities, if a person told lies, then he was a liar. He was condemned for it and his claims were ignored. [6]

liar 2There is no down side, in the current environment, to being shown to be a liar. In fact, now that I think of it, I don’t see that word used. We see stories that some percent of a politician’s statements (I saw a 70% ranking for Trump during the campaign) are lies, but not that the candidate was “a liar.” In the current environment, lies are honored equally with truths as “courageous,” or as “standing up for the downtrodden” (or the downtreaders) or “saying how he really feels.”

The “gotcha!” of being caught and shamed by lying in public—unless it is to a federal investigator—is gone. That’s the point Lord Finkle-McGraw wanted to make about hypocrisy. It is now part of the practice of doing the public’s business. We don’t punish the perpetrators anymore.

How we train our candidates

When I was young, I was part of a group of guys who used to play touch football in a vacant lot next to our church. My friend, Bruce Motter, lived only a block away and was within easy earshot of his home. His mother let him play right up until the time dinner was on the table, provided that he would come home when she called. That was the deal.  So we would hear her call, “Bruce.” We would look at him and he would shrug and we would keep on playing. The next one sounded like “Bruce!!” We all responded the same way. Finally there was “Bruce Allen Motter you come home this instant!” and Bruce would say, “Gotta go, guys” and take off.

I’ve been thinking about that story as I read Sheryl Gay-Stolberg’s article. We train our liar 3public officials by treating some things as acceptable and others as not acceptable. Politicians who thought their campaigns would be seriously damaged if they could be shown to be lying about public matters would stop lying about public matters. Mrs. Motter trained my friend Bruce to understand that he was not really being called for dinner when she called his name. Bruce responded exactly as you would expect, and as any politician would, who was doing something rewarding and illicit and was not punished for it.

Does it really work that way? It did in the experiment Brendan Nyhan and some colleagues put together. Here’s how that worked.

In a controlled experiment, researchers showed a group of voters a misleading claim by Mr. Trump, while another group saw that claim accompanied by “corrective information” that directly contradicted what Mr. Trump had said. The group that viewed the corrections believed the new information, but seeing it did not change how they viewed Mr. Trump.

So the viewers in the second group saw what Trump said, saw that it was not true, and continued to feel about him—however that was—the same way they had before. I am wondering what the effect would have been had Trump’s statement been called “a lie,” on the basis that the new information, which in this world is completely reliable, shows it to be untrue and the group is also shown that Trump knew it to be untrue when he said it.  Here are three plausible steps.

That would be step one; knowingly false = lie. Step two would be backing that reality up into the character of the speaker; frequently lies = liar. Then step three would be the campaign implication; do you want a liar representing you in Congress or in the White House or in the governor’s mansion?

We’ve lost that, I think. If you call the “pep rally” setting to mind, the coach is speaking for “us” and he is saying false bad things about “them” and that shows his loyalty. It show, as we say today, that his heart is in the right place.
“Lying to us” can hardly be imagined in such a setting, which might fairly be called “tribal.”


I don’t really have one. I called it that so you would read this last paragraph. It seems to me that if lying to your constituents has an upside (voters will know you are on their side) and no downside (no one expects you to tell the truth or has any incentive to punish you for lying) then candidates and incumbents will lie.

If we can get out of tribal mode (like the pep rally setting) and demand that speakers, even though they are truly “us,” tell us the truth, then there is a good reason for them to stop lying. We—not intending to overlook the crucial role of the media—are the ones who define what behavior is rewarded. Making statements you know to be untrue could be called lies. People who routinely tell lies could be called liars. A strong presumption against electing liars to represent us, could be articulated and supported. [7]

If lying “to us” is just something public figures are doing “to them,” then I think we are all lost.

[1] Although, it is true that Finkle-McGraw is “an equity lord,” which means, he says, that he is freed to—“entitled to” in a sense— consider the welfare of the phyle as a whole, not just his own place in it. Thanks to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for this wonderful character. That is very much what Erik Erikson says about the developmental stage he calls “generativity,” and I have actually made it that far.
[2] By “best interest,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything like a careful cost/benefit analysis going on, or even whether he is comparing the immediate gratifications of blustering with the delayed consequences of losing large sections of his principal staff.
[3] There are both internal and external reasons for refusing to deceive the public, but the question is never one of “character” v. “expediency.” Sometimes good character requires you to discern and choose the lesser evil.
[4] Despite the wishes of many commentators, there is no “extreme center.”
[5] By “plausible,” I mean only that a case can be made for the assertion. Supporting facts can be adduced. A “reasonable case,” not an irrefutable case, can be made. It is a very low standard.
[6] Not trying to imply, of course, that the behavior of public officials in small towns was like that, only that the standards that were preached and were sometimes practiced, denied credibility to people who were known to be liars.
[7] Of course, “telling the truth” is not an ultimate value. Representing your constituents well is the ultimate value. But telling the truth will allow voters to make that decision on the merits. Telling tribal lies is not at all the same thing as telling the truth.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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