Ted Cruz and the use of deception to exploit political ignorance


William Saletan of Slate has an interesting article on Ted Cruz's misrepresentations about his record on immigration. He effectively shows that Cruz supported the legalizing the status of large numbers of illegal immigrants back in 2013, but now pretends that he opposed it all along. Saletan is much less convincing in his effort to prove that this record shows that Cruz "may be the most spectacular liar ever to run for president."

The truth is that deceiving voters about one's past or present positions is a fairly standard political strategy. Few successful politicians become such without engaging in this kind of deception at one point or another. I see little difference between Cruz's distortions of his record on immigration, and President Obama's years of lying about his position on same-sex marriage between 2008 and 2012.

Perhaps Saletan means to suggest that Cruz's lies are the most "spectacular" in the sense that they are unusually sophisticated and effective. But, so far at least, none of Cruz's deceptions has achieved the spectacular success of Obama's "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it." That deception, and others designed to exploit what Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber called the "stupidity of the American voter" were an integral part of the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Obama's bad behavior, of course, in no way excuses Cruz's or that of other Republicans. Here, as elsewhere, political partisans would do well to try to keep their biases in check and remember the sins of their own party, as well as those of the opposition.

In fairness, Cruz, Obama and other similar political leaders could potentially justify their deceptions by pointing to the dangers of unilateral disarmament in political combat. If they stop engaging in politically convenient lying, their opponents probably will not, and the more ethical candidates will be at a disadvantage. Donald Trump, whom Cruz is battling for the Republican nomination, is the proud winner of Politifact's 2015 Lie of the Year award. To say the least, it is highly unlikely that he would reciprocate any restraint on Cruz's part. President Obama (who won the same award in the 2013), can cite the various deceptions perpetrated by his political opponents.

If, as is likely, Cruz truly believes that the public interest would be best served by his winning the presidency, he could also conclude that he is justified in using deception to try to achieve that goal—especially if his opponents are going to use similar tactics. Similarly, Obama likely believes that his lies about same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act also ultimately served the public interest by helping him get elected, and enabling him to push through various beneficial policies.

Ultimately, the underlying problem here is not just the unscrupulous behavior of individual politicians, but the widespread political ignorance that makes deceptive tactics effective. If Ted Cruz knew he was facing a well-informed electorate that would carefully scrutinize his record, he probably would not try to lie about it. Similar strategic calculations apply to Obama's deceptions about same-sex marriage and the ACA. Unfortunately, most voters are "rationally ignorant" and pay very little attention to the details of political issues, and candidates' records. Many of those who pay closer attention are biased "political fans" who tend to reject anything that reflects poorly on their preferred party or candidate, and therefore are highly susceptible to deceptions that reinforce their preexisting views.

In Cruz's case, his dissembling about immigration actually makes me look somewhat more favorably on the prospect of his becoming president than I would otherwise. I support a strong presumption of open borders immigration, and therefore I am no fan of Cruz's current highly restrictionist position on the immigration. But the record documented by Saletan strongly suggest that his stance is largely driven by short-term political strategy, which in turn creates the possibility that his policies on the subject in the White House might be very different from those he advocates now. In 2017 or 2018, many ignorant voters may not remember what Cruz said about immigration during the 2016 campaign, just as they are now prone to forget what he said about it back in 2013. I would prefer a candidate who takes consistently pro-immigration positions on principle. But a dissembling triangulator is less bad than a committed restrictionist.

In my book on political ignorance, I describe how President Obama quietly ignored his 2008 campaign promise to renegotiate free trade treaties such as NAFTA, most likely because he realized all along that it was a terrible idea (though one popular with Democratic primary voters). Most of the public probably did not even notice the shift. Should he become president, Ted Cruz might also end up shelving some of his less defensible campaign commitments.

That said, the widespread use of deception in politics is troubling, even if it occasionally facilitates the adoption of good (or at least less bad) policies. The political ignorance that makes such deceptions effective is very difficult to overcome. But the beginning of wisdom is to at least recognize that we have a serious problem that goes well beyond the misbehavior of individual politicians.