The long, prosperous history of lying politicians

Politics, NakedLaw, News, Opinion

The campaign trail has long been a place where lies, exaggerations, and deceptions prosper, and often it seems politicians will say just about anything to get elected.

Months or years after the election is won, voters look back at a landscape littered with broken promises and once again realize they were duped. Is it any wonder many Americans have such a profound distrust in their elected officials?

Is it the politician’s fault? Or our own?

Of course, not all U.S. politicians are liars, and those who lie sometimes tell the truth. But maybe the reason lying and deception are so pervasive is that honesty isn’t often rewarded.

Early in his 1976 campaign for president, Jimmy Carter imprudently promised to “never tell a lie” or “knowingly make a misstatement of fact” if elected. That high standard came back to haunt him when a hostile press shredded Carter for admitting he had “looked on a lot of women with lust.” Was it honest? Yes. But when it comes to appealing to the electorate, honesty isn’t always the best policy.

Cases in point: in recent weeks, Donald Trump was caught lying about witnessing Muslims in New Jersey who cheered as the World Trade Center came down on September 11. Carly Fiorina falsely claimed that the “vast majority of Americans” agree that Planned Parenthood should be defunded, and there was no evidence that ISIS was using videos of Trump as recruiting tools as Hillary Clinton had stated. But despite extensive media coverage of these falsehoods, none of these candidates suffered in the polls.

Perhaps what the American public and media wants more than honesty is some attempt at authenticity. But if Trump can relate to the “average American” by receiving a “small loan” of $1 million from his father to get his business off the ground, what does the word “authentic” even mean?

The age of fact-checking

American history is littered with famously broken campaign promises. Abraham Lincoln guaranteed that if he was elected, slavery would be preserved in the South; Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “he kept us out of war,” and then proceeded to plunge the United States into World War I; FDR pledged to balance the budget, then introduced the New Deal, causing the deficit to balloon and arguably ushering in the modern era of deficit spending.

Of course, it’s a different world now. Promises and claims offered by those politicians faced far less scrutiny than those made since the rise of television, and exponentially more so in the Internet age. Instantaneous access to information and communication means there is more fact checking of what candidates and campaigns say than ever before, and some studies suggest this makes politicians less likely to knowingly make false statements.

Clearly, however, it’s still not enough of a disincentive. According to the respected fact-check site PolitiFact, both Democrats (President Obama has kept only 45 percent of the more than 500 promises made during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns) and Republicans (congressional GOP leaders have only kept 38 percent of promises made in the 2010 campaign) are guilty of consistently pumping out lies.

Is lying healthy?

So why is lying, which we condemn when teaching our children moral standards, tolerable when it comes to politics?

For one, we are not intuitively good at judging when someone is lying. Most people can only spot a lie around 54 percent of the time, and even polygraph tests are notorious for high margins of error.

Admittedly, some “white lies” might be necessary to keep society running. But incessant distortion of the truth for short-term gain, without guilt or remorse, is often a sign of much deeper systemic issues. Perhaps the pervasiveness of lying in American politics tells us something we don’t want to publicly acknowledge: On many issues, voters actually prefer lies to truth.

When the reality of war, poverty, and racism are too dismal to confront, maybe we just vote for whoever makes us feel better.