Why so Much Lying in Politics?

By W.T. Stanbury, 17 August 2009

Lying, misrepresentation and other forms of deception are regrettably common in Canadian politics. I am not talking about “puffery;” or lying for reasons of state such as national security. Columnist Angelo Persichilli (The Hill Times, Feb.26, 2007, p.15) has said: “Question Period is the most deceitful reality TV show and should be rated ‘R’. The MPs lie every day. They lie when they ask questions and they lie when they give answers. Who are the liars? I can’t name names because I don’t have the same Parliamentary immunity they give themselves, but needless to say, politicians are citizens who have the legal right to lie in the House of Commons Chamber. They slander, assassinate characters and lie on a daily basis.” Michael Ignatieff, chosen as leader of the Liberal Party in December 2008 after spending most of his career abroad, was asked what has surprised him most about politics? “Bad faith… People often attack you knowing full well that what they’re attacking you for has no substance in fact.” He pauses. “It was very innocent of me to think otherwise” (David Herman, Prospect, March,2009).

The purpose of this piece is not to document the obvious (there are several websites that do this for Prime Minister Harper, for example), but to try to understand the reasons why lying, misrepresentation, and other forms of deception are so common in our politics.

Definition: Lying is usually defined as making false statement with a deliberate to deceive. Thus the liar knows what he is saying is not true. This can be distinguished where the speaker (writer) does not know if the statement is true, and has failed to try to ascertain the facts. This is a case of negligence, or playing fast and loose and ignoring what could be serious adverse consequences for the subject of the statement. Then there is intentional deception where words are parsed very carefully so that a statement is not false, but because it is incomplete, the effect of which is to mislead.

Bare-faced lies are less common in politics than are various types of deception: highly selective use of facts (contrary information is omitted); mischaracterization of facts often through the use of inappropriate adjectives (this is the essence of most smear campaigns); and distortion through exaggeration. For example, taking a small failing beating it to death to give the impression that the person has never done anything worthy of respect in his (her) life; pleading ignorance or no memory when aware of the truth or lie; hair splitting in the use of language – recall Bill Clinton on the definition of “is”); and diversion and obfuscation to avoid speaking the truth or acknowledging errors. (Recall Brian Mulroney claiming that the reason that key details about his relationship with big-time lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber did not come out was that the questions posed to him were not sufficiently precise.)

Not all lying and deception in politics is reprehensible. There is a well worn, but insightful joke which says that a diplomat is an otherwise honorable man who lies in the service of his country. It is taken for granted that spies lie to the enemy. Winston Churchill said that in some cases the truth is so precious that “ it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.” Effective action against terrorists requires deception, flat-out lies, and surreptitious interception of their communications.

My research indicates that a wide variety of explanations have been advanced to try to answer this question. I summarize a number.

Strategic Context and Opportunism: The strategic context in which politics is conducted may be an important factor contributing to the prevalence of lying and deception. The strategic context is characterized by the following: the presence of at least a few rivals for power who hold conflicting views on matters that are important to them; there is asymmetric and costly information; there is ambiguity about certain important rules of conduct; and the context is dynamic due to both the interaction of rivals and exogenous events.(On the importance of uncertainty in the political arena,see Stanbury,The Hill Times,July 20,2009,pp.16-17.) Further, the shortness of news cycles means that “hit and run” tactics based on lies may not be caught. Lies may be hard to ascertain—except perhaps with a lag—after which there in no practicable remedy.

The essence of opportunism is self-interested behaviour based on the identification and exploitation of opportunities in one’s environment where that behaviour also involves deceit or guile. Two attributes of political markets facilitate opportunism: asymmetric (and costly) information, and differential transactions costs. Thus politicians make election promises that they know (but voters do not) will require increases in taxes.

On the other hand, it is been argued that it is now harder for politicians to lie as there are so many people online who are able to check out statements that seem questionable—just ask Hilary Clinton, Trent Lott, and others .But can you think of an example of a Canadian politician who was caught out by netizens and who paid a serious penalty for lying?

Insufficient Penalties: Lying may be frequent because, on balance, it is beneficial in the sense that “crime pays.” That is, the odds of getting caught are low and the penalties are modest or non-existent co the expected costs are less than the expected benefit from lying. Lying very often “works,” not just in the short run as noted above, but in the longer run in the sense that the liars are seldom held accountable – at least on this earth. So…when lying is found to pay, it tends to expand. MPs can slander each other in the Commons chamber—all in interests of free speech. If they say the same thing outside the chamber, they may be sued for damages. There are no laws against false or misleading advertising by political parties or candidates (unlike businesses—see the federal Competition Act ). Thus the Tories’ attack ads focused on the last two Liberal Party leaders could incorporate as much mis-representation, toxic innuendo, and simple lies as seem useful in the game of framing the opposition leader in highly unflattering terms. The frequent use of negative ads suggests that this tactic “works” from the perspective of the advertiser.

Columnist John Robson puts it this way: “It is manifestly clear that [politicians ] can say whatever sounds good, then change their story months, weeks or even a single day later without political consequences. And psychologically, once you discover that you can utter self-serving fibs and pay no price the temptation becomes enormous…”(Ottawa Citizen, May 29,2009).

The Public Doesn’t Want the Truth: It has often been argued that politicians lie is because the public doesn't want to hear the truth. Columnist Robert J. Samuelson (Newsweek, February 21, 2005, p. 39) wrote that the public seems to “prefer to be deceived rather than face the difficult choices posed by Social Security or the government’s budget.” He concludes by saying, “Americans dislike deficits but dislike them less than the alternatives – higher taxes or lower spending. There’s a quiet clamor for hypocrisy and deception; and pragmatic politicians respond with massive borrowing schemes that seem to promise something for nothing. Please spare us the truth.” Are Canadians any different?

Psychopathic Personality: More than a few politicians (and top business executives, interest group leaders) are psychopaths, but of the non-violent and usually non-criminal variety. Such persons, however, are intensely ambitious, have great skill in manipulating people and organizations (ie, they are skilled con artists). Most importantly, they lack empathy for other human beings. So lying causes no twinge of conscience or remorse – even when it causes direct, serious harm to others. Where the penalties for lying are low, the tendency will be reinforced.

Hyper-Partisanship: Intense partisanship, coupled with the fact that elections usually occur only every several years or so, creates enormous pressures on candidates to do “whatever it takes to win.” Hyper-partisanship may increase the use of lies (or egregious distortions) to weaken opponents. “True believers” seem to breed intolerance sometimes extreme intolerance (see Eric Hofer, The True Believer).So an opponent is not merely wrong, he (she) is damned to perdition like a “heretic”. Political zealots may be so inflamed with righteousness that they lose their ability to reason critically when dealing with an opponent. (Recall that Prime Minister Harper—on the basis of much evidence-- has been called “a pathological partisan.”) Zealots may not even recognize that their statements contain lies. This does not justify such statements because any kind of ethical behavior requires the ability to reason to sort our right from wrong and truth from lies.

Need to be Ingratiating: Being in politics seems to require that one to be ingratiating to almost everyone regardless of one’s feelings and regardless of being on the receiving end of nasty behavior by others. Being “on-stage 24/7” imposes a huge burden on politicians—they feel that they must not offend anyone – even inadvertently (particularly in this era of political correctness). This requirement goes far beyond the normal hypocrisy of every day life where we dissemble (and more often curb our tongue) in the interests of amity and comity.

Politicians are almost forced to become professional actors in what amounts to an often changing role ( the uncertainty factor again). But, regardless of the new personnel on the stage and the changes in the script necessitated by changing circumstances, the actor must not offend – at least overtly. (The upper class English are the masters of using polite words to inflict gross insults.) A “false front” is part of the role. Nothing is as it seems. Almost all relationships in the political arena are conducted on the basis of present and anticipated future advantage. No wonder newcomers to Ottawa are advised: “If you want a real friend, get a dog.”

Truth as an Option: Shameless lying and distortion appear to be rooted in a serious lack of respect for truth as an ideal. When this is the case, the truth (or reality) is seen as an inconvenient obstacle to the achievement of political (or personal) goals. Thus the truth is simply one of several options (alternative courses of action backed by words) to achieve one’s goals. If the truth is convenient, and expected to be the best option under the prevailing circumstances, it will be used. But if it is not, then lies, distortion, and the supply of misleading information become the means employed to achieve the desired ends. The truth is not seen as important in itself. Situations are assessed in terms of what a sort of cost-benefit analysis—one done on the fly with limited information.

Post Modernism: Perhaps politicians lie or mislead so frequently because they have implicitly adopted a post-modern sensibility—one characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense outside our own position. So what others call lies are seen as simply different personal or subjective interpretations of reality. In fact, in a post modern perspective, there is no objective reality. There are only individual, subjective perceptions that are true for that person. The "mini-narratives" of post modernism are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary. They make no claim to universality, truth, reason, or even stability. The circularity of this position for politicians making election promises should be apparent.

Republished in full with permission from W.T. Stanbury.

Photo: CAITI-online