Politicians Will Keep Lying as Long as We Don't Punish Them

As a nice companion piece to the horror-chart of debt-to-GDP ratio below, read this cheerfully gloomy Reuters column by Jack Shafer on "Why we vote for liars." Excerpt:

The one presidential candidate in recent memory to win the White House posing as a truth teller was Jimmy Carter, who famously promised early in his campaign: "I'll never tell a lie" and "I'll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact" as president. These promises drew instant fire from the press, most notably Steven Brill, who flayed him in a March 1976 Harper’s piece titled "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies" (subscription required). Carter, who told no fewer lies than the average candidate, paid a political price for his promise, as everyone turned up their radar. "By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that's going to be his standard," said Alan Baron, George McGovern's press secretary. "Well, fine, let's hold him to it." [...]

Some of the lies the candidates tell are innocuous and are not held against them, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write in their 2003 book, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World. For example, "It's great to be in Kansas City" is a completely acceptable lie, as is the platitude, "Nothing is more important to me than the future of our children," Jamieson and Waldman write. Nor do voters care much if candidates claim to have "led the fight" for a piece of legislation if all they did was vote for it or sign it. Moving up the ladder of lying, candidates rarely are forced to pay a political price when they butcher the truth, even in presidential debates. "You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it," said Vice President George H.W. Bush's press secretary Peter Teeley in 1984, adding a "so what?" to the fact that reporters might document a candidate's debate lies. "Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000."

Campaigns can survive the most blatant political lies, but candidates must be careful not to lie about themselves – or even appear to lie about themselves[.]

Shafer's depressing, if obvious, kicker:

The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we'd rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That's because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.

Related content from me: "Obama and the L-Word," and "Obama, Democrats, and the Media: You Can't Handle the 'Truth.'"

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  • Pro Libertate||

    Precisely. What we need to do is to behaviorally condition politicians. Truth gets rewarded; its opposite gets punished. I suggest shock collars for the negative reinforcement.

    This can be applied to other areas as well, but let's start with the lies and work our way up.

  • Paul.||

    That picture of Mittens is kind of horrible.

    Truth gets rewarded; its opposite gets punished.

    If only there were a system for that. Something where they could lose their jobs if they lied to the people who voted for them.

    I guess that would presume the people voting for them were rational in some basic way.

  • Pro Libertate||

    With all of the technology in place these days, we should come up with something more timely than merely voting someone out of office. Maybe pay suspensions, instant recalls, that sort of thing?

  • ||

    What is Damon Killian doing these days? That's something we could try.

  • Aresen||

    I favor the Robespierre approach:

    1) Require them to make specific promises as to what they actually can deliver prior to the election.
    2) At the end of their term, check whether said promises were fulfilled.
    3) If the fulfillment is less than 50%, give them an extremely close shave in front of the Capitol building just before their successor is sworn in.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Maybe that's what's wrong with the Constitution--it lacks a death penalty for violating the Constitution while holding office.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Pro Libertate,

    it lacks a death penalty for violating the Constitution while holding office.


    Uh, no, it doesn't:

    Article 3 Sect 3,

    "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

    The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted."

    You can argue that using the power of the Federal government to plunder and kill the citizens of the States (think: forfeiture laws and drug war killings) is waging war against the United States.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Too unclear and indirect. I want something more like, "Bust a deal, face the wheel."

  • DK||

    Here's a simple rule of thumb:

    If a candidate is supporting a statist position, he's telling the truth; if he's supporting a libertarian position, he's lying.

  • Hyperion||

    That doesn't exactly explain Ron Paul so much. Also, there are no Dems supporting Libertarian positions even with their rhetoric, so how do we tell when they are lying? If you want to tell me when their mouth moves, I can buy into that.

  • DK||

    Democrats have long campaigned as anti-war (despite continual, overwhelming evidence to the contrary). Same goes for civil liberties. So, when Obama says he's going to raise taxes, believe him. When he says he's going to close Guantanamo, don't believe him.

    You're right, it doesn't explain Ron Paul, but, alas, he didn't win. Nor does it explain Rand Paul and a select few others in Congress. But, I'll stick by my rule when I can choose between most of the 435+100+2 others.

  • JeremyR||

    Although it was a tongue in cheek novel, H. Beam Piper has a perfect way of dealing with politicians in A Planet for Texans.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That's because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.

    "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." - H.L. Mencken

  • ||

    Isn't that a clause in the Constitution now? The Good and Hard clause?

    The Congress shall have Power - To make all Laws which shall be, by the estimation of Congress, what the common people want, and that Execution of the newly formed Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution, or interpreted into it, shall be given hard to the common people, by the Government of the United States, or by any Department or Officer thereof.
  • ||

    This was supposed to be a reply to Coward.

  • ant1sthenes||

    As a gimmick for the next two debates, they should hook the candidates up to polygraphs.

  • ||

    On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That's because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate.

    I don't think it is just voters but the whole human race. This is why we still have religion. Because contemplating a finite life would require us to acknowledge that we are alone and responsible for our way through this life. It isn't dismallness. It's that these issues don't fit neatly in the Team Blue/Red narrative. These are hard issues. Too hard for the number of stupid people who have irresponsibly been granted the right of suffrage to contemplate let alone solve. It is easier to say "Team red evil." than to acknowledge that social security reform, for example, means not everyone can ride the gravy train.

  • toolkien||

    The idea that voting just makes people feel better is an under estimate. The people who vote actively vote for Force. It's not just the lies that make them feel better, but that they are voting for someone who is "doing something about "it". The 'mailing of fists' against 'Them' that makes them feel better. It's those who will vote for column A or column B, so that some peaceful or productive person will get their wagon fixed but good - for thinking or acting in a way that makes Voter X uneasy - that is the problem. "Punishing" politicians is the wrong place to start. If people get the government they deserve, the place for punishment is at the root, not the leaves on the tree.

  • PapayaSF||

    I am a bit dismayed that the standard for what constitutes "lying" seems to be being rapidly dropping, and now often means "something I don't agree with" or "he did not fully qualify his statement" or whatever.

    Immediately after the debate, the Democratic spin was "Romney won because he's a lying liar who said nothing but lies." I researched two of these "lies." One was that Obamacare could cause up to (IIRC) 20 million people to lose their employer-provided health insurance. The "fact checker" reported that, indeed, the CBO did give that figure as the highest estimate, and Romney did say "up to," but rated the statement as "mostly untrue" because that was just the highest of the CBO estimates. I mean, WTF? Basically quoting the CBO counts as a "lie" these days? Sure, the CBO might well be wrong, but the statement was in no way a "lie."

    The other was Romney saying that (IIRC) 40-something percent of our GDP goes to government. This was rated a lie because the federal government only consumes 20-something percent of GDP. But I think Romney meant federal + state + local government.

    No wonder some Republicans sneer at "fact-checking" like that.

  • OldMexican||

    Politicians Will Keep Lying as Long as We Don't Punish Them


    So now it's OUR fault we keep voting for them same lyin', two-timin' sons o'bitches!

    Talk about blaming the victim! For shame!

    [Tongue squarely in the cheek]

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