Saturday, September 12, 2009

And Nothing But The Truth

"How do you know a politician is lying?
His lips are moving."
Timeworn political cliché, masquerading as humor.
I was young when I first heard this, and I found it true, funny, clever and most of all, mature. I was still at the age when being an adult meant adopting a carefully calibrated level of all-around cynicism, meticulously balanced against those of my peers, and this fit in perfectly.

But, like a lot of conventional wisdom, this particular bit is untrue. It's actually somewhat rare for a professional politician to flat out lie - as in saying something that they understand to be false. The reason for this is simple - someone out there knows the facts of the matter, and you can bet that the Truth Machine will call out anyone it catches. In some cases, of course, it doesn't actually matter. The polarized and politically chauvinistic culture that's been taking root in the United States does make blatant falsehood easier to get away with, as a high level of partisan activism tends to lead people to overlook dishonesty that serves The Cause. By the same token, one's critics are unlikely to give credit for even scrupulous honesty in any event, so the disincentive to lie lessens as overt partisanship grows. Still, deliberate falsehood is nowhere near as common as angry partisans (or random cynics) make it out to be.

More likely is, quite simply, a basic tendency to tell people what they want to hear. Couple this with telling them that they're above backing people who do nothing but tell them what they want to hear (and keeping a straight face while you're at it), and voila! It works, because for the most part, people want to believe that they're ready to hear the cold hard facts, that they can handle the truth, and they're above shooting the messenger.
"In the summer and early fall of 2006, when it was obvious the United States was failing in Iraq, the American people most likely would have rejoiced if the president had leveled with them, said he knew the strategy was not working and that he had begun an intensive review."
Bob Woodward, The War Within.
Outside of my general annoyance with the overuse of the phrase "the American people," when "we, the public" would suffice (Woodward is from Geneva, Illinois, not Geneva, Switzerland), Woodward's statement bugs me because it assumes something that, with the reality of American politics, seems nonsensical. Given the tendency of nearly the whole of the American political class, to a person, to avoid leveling with the public at all costs, we are to assume that none of them realize that the public is hungry for the unvarnished truth and will reward them for it? Politicians are often acutely aware of what the public will reward or punish them for, and if they aren't, there's someone on the payroll whose job it is to make them aware of it. If leveling with the public "most likely" brought celebrations and accolades, we'd be continuously flooded with scrupulously honest assessments of everything from the federal budget to the state of the drains. But we aren't.

The fact is, we have visions of ourselves and the world that we want to be true, and that we're deeply invested in. And we DO shoot the messenger, and sometimes, people associated with the messenger. And so what the less charitable are wont to condemn as lies are actually usually the truth - chopped up, repackaged and spun as required into a form that carefully removes all of the unpleasant gristly bits that would make it less appealing. Of course, one can intentionally lead you to an incorrect understanding of a situation through careful selection of absolutely true statements, and there are times when politicians do just that. But this again, is something that the Truth Machine would call one on, so I think that it too is less common than is generally supposed. More likely, perhaps, is the obvious overpromise born of (often clearly tenuous) assumptions that (unsurprisingly) turn out not the true - the economy changes or the rest of Congress isn't as accommodating as one wants them to be.

Being frank about the risks and downsides of the policies one espouses is, within the political arena, seen as a sign of weakness, and an opening to an opponent who will dutifully step up and strongly imply to your constituents that there is such a thing as a free lunch - or at least one paid for entirely by people they don't like. While we like to think that we're too smart to fall for such obvious sycophancy (even if our neighbors of the wrong partisan persuasion - those egregious wastes of voting rights - aren't) it's clear that many, if not all, of us have to be wrong about that for the practice to be as widespread as it is. But that's different from lying. And it's a distinction worth making.

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