Politicians’ Contempt For The Truth

Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, said in his memoir that covering Washington was just a matter of sitting in grand marble halls waiting for someone ever more important to come out and lie to you. One could easily make the case that this happens with considerable regularity in state houses and city halls throughout America.

If people think politicians can get ahead without untruths, they’re lying to themselves. Politicians have always had a distant relationship with the truth. They have always lied, are constantly lying, and will always lie. It no longer matters if statements have any basis in reality. Get over it.

Some political lies can lead to unnecessary war. Still others conceal illegal behavior. What matters is firing up your supporters and getting reelected. They promise heaven on earth, and when they can’t deliver, they spin, evade, manipulate the numbers and knowingly engage in falsehoods.

President Trump’s self-serving whoppers are overwhelming and are memorably labeled as B.S. The President’s body of falsehoods is singular in its multiplicity. He may be an outlier, but he is hardly unique in deliberately saying something untrue. The truth about lies is that politicians have always told them. Of course, the exception being America’s first President, George Washington. He could not tell a lie, unlike most politicians who cannot tell the truth.

Trump is not the only one lying. Recall a number of prominent presidential lies. Some are as egregious, such as when President Obama told the American public over and over that “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.” Better still, the many falsehoods President George W. Bush told in the run-up to the Iraq war, which were very damaging to the United States. Or when President Clinton shamelessly said in 1998, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

Then there was President George H. W. Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes.” And of course, “People have got to know whether or not their President’s a crook. Well, I’m not a crook” by President Richard Nixon. Truth tellers in politics are an endangered species. Polling data shows politicians among the least trusted actors in society.

But do the American people care about the veracity of what politicians say. Or do they simply want to hear “their truth”? People have a tendency to view information familiar to them as the truth and search for other information that reinforces their beliefs. Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, calls it “cognitive bias” – we tend to avoid those facts that force their brains to work more.

People live in their own social network bubble in the digital world. They go on the internet to search for information that confirms their convictions. They know more but understand less, dividing into hostile tribes. They see the world as a battle between left and right, each living in separate worlds.

They fish in different information streams. Politicized media outlets and online social networks put out completely different representations of the truth. Extreme partisanship is not a new problem. George Washington warned about the dangers of it in his Farewell Address in September 1796.

With social media, lies have the capacity to spread faster than ever before. It is a cheap and easy way to disrupt political discourse. After all, birds of a feather flock together. These days, anybody with a Twitter account can throw spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks and for how long.

You would be right to conclude that Machiavelli would, with a few exceptions, have a lot to learn from public figures in the age of post-truth politics. The country is beset with tribalism, having forgotten the American forefathers’ motto “E pluribus unum,” which is imprinted on every coin in hopes of avoiding the United States becoming a nation of immigrants divided into tribes.

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