monograph · The Skeptical Razor
Political lies and their consequences
It’s easy to condemn political lies and catalogue their awful consequences. It’s more difficult and important to examine the consequences of not lying. In a world where opponents are using every devious trick in the book to defeat you, can anyone afford to be so high-minded?
This is the challenge set in Primary Colours, a fictional account of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. At the end of the film adaptation, the president tells a disillusioned young activist:
“This is hardball …. This is the price you pay to lead. You don’t think Lincoln was a whore before he was President? He had to tell his stories and smile his back-country grin. He did that so one day he’d have the opportunity to stand before the nation and appeal to our better nature. That’s where the bullshit stops.”
This debate is often framed as a battle, or trade-off, between principle and pragmatism. But that dichotomy glosses over a more intimate relationship between the two. Political principles centrally concern outcomes: we want to create a fairer world, a more equal society. And when principles relate to outcomes, there can be no neat distinction between principles and practice. If, for example, you refuse to tell a lie that will enable you to make society fairer, you have not preserved your principles, rather you have given up one relating to outcomes for one relating to process or personal integrity.
The danger here is of what Bernard Williams called “moral self-indulgence”: keeping our hands clean to make us feel more virtuous at the price of making life worse for others. “Let justice be done, though the world perish, ” as Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor put it.
The most obvious minor concession to a politics of purity is to accept that politics may require a certain amount of economy with the truth, but to insist that this is not the same as outright lying. This distinction, however, is sophistical. The ethically important line is drawn not between lies and partial truths, but between truthful sincerity and deception. Our reaction to certain half-truths reflects this. Until recently at least, when politicians have deceived without technically lying, no one has accepted that as reasonable economy with the truth. Bill Clinton, for example, famously looked the American people in the eye and said he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky”. Given the exact way “sexual relations” is typically used in his native Arkansas, he might have been technically correct. But no one saw that as justifying his denial. Whatever might be problematic about political lies is equally problematic about any kind of intentional deception.
Morally and socially, it would then seem that any kind of self-serving deceit is regarded as bad. So why is it that recently the electorate increasingly seems not to care about truthfulness at all? To take just two examples, many people voted for Trump also said that they didn’t believe a lot of what he said. Few expect him to implement all the policies he proposed. Similarly, in Britain the campaign to remain in the EU Vote Leave in particular said some outrageously false things, most famously that leaving the EU would save £350 million per week which would be spent on the National Health Service. Not only was this figure a complete fantasy, this was a referendum on EU membership not a general election, so the leave campaign had no say at all in what any money saved would be spent on.
Some of the public were indeed fooled by this lie but most saw through it and didn’t care. They didn’t expect the campaigners to tell the truth. They responded not to the literal substance of the claim but the central thrust of the message: a vote to leave puts our money back in our control. People voted on broad, clear, simple intentions and principles not on concrete, contested facts and evidence. They had a disinterest in objective facts most famously expressed by the government minister Michael Gove who said “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Importantly, however, this disregard for truth is selective. Only populist insurgents are given a free pass on truthfulness while the “political establishment” is still held to the old, higher standards of integrity. Hence Clinton suffered from the label of “Crooked Hillary” while Trump was allowed to not even reveal his tax returns. Facts and statistics offered by remain campaigners were dismissed as unreliable and evidence of the mendacity of the elites while Vote Leave’s dubious numbers were taken with a shrug.
How did we get to this? Part of the answer is that in the name of realism, the political mainstream allowed truth and accuracy to be degraded. Without endorsing the idea that lying or deception is “the price you pay to lead” it embraced another kind of wilful separation of message and substance, rhetoric and reality. In this form of rhetoric, words and deeds neither contradict nor match each other. Rather, two parallel discourses are used, one which objectively and clearly sets out the reality of the situation while the other presents it as palatably as possible. One analogy is with religious discourse, where some believe that myths and stories are ways of conveying the core of more complex theological truths to simpler folk.
In politics this translates into the maxim espoused by former New York Governor Michael Cuomo that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign fitted this template. “Yes we can” is hardly high poetry but it is a memorable, emotive cry, not a systematic exposition of what makes this “can” possible. The slogan didn’t contradict anything in Obama’s programme but that was largely because it didn’t say anything of substance about it either. Like a religious myth, it gives the masses a simple narrative to move them and leaves it to the political elite to work through the politico-theological details.
This would appear to offer a way of doing politics in the public domain that permits glossing over facts and detail but it does not involve deception either. It looks benign, and it is indeed more or less how all political parties now work. And there is a word for it: spin. Spin is not supposed to lie or evade the truth but it aims always to present it in the most favourable way.
But if spin is benign and non-deceptive, why has it become a dirty word? After all, no one has ever expected politicians to present the objective, impartial truth. In that sense, people expected politicians to spin before there was even a word for it.
To understand public distaste for spin we have to see how the distinction I made between rhetoric which departs from substance and rhetoric which presents the substance differently is not as neat as it seems. In reality, there is a continuum between the two, and that means benign presentation can easily slide into malign misrepresentation. To return to religion, this is reflected in the debate over whether religious myths are merely simple ways of presenting deep truths or noble lies to keep the stupid masses on the straight and narrow.
In politics, the problem of benign spin degenerating into malign deception is all too real. As Bill Clinton’s “sexual relations” claim illustrates, the point at which the public started to object to spin was the point at which reasonable people would draw wrong conclusions from it, not the point at which literally departed from the truth. And spin is likely to reach this point since its whole purpose usually is to encourage people to draw more positive conclusions from the facts than a more objective look would warrant.
I would contend that decades of spin means that even those voters who don’t believe politicians are all lying do assume that they have no interest in the truth of what they say, only in its effects. A culture of spin makes the categories of truth and lies irrelevant. Its focus on presentation leads people to correctly conclude that truth and falsity are not the priorities of those addressing them. This is one factor which has led us to the so-called “post-truth” politics. In this environment populist parties can campaign on the basis of little more than opposition to the establishment and empty promises of a brighter future.
So when we find ourselves worried about political lies and their consequences, we need to understand that many political lies today are themselves consequence of what can seem like nothing worse than trying to give the best impression. The obsession with presentation set western politics down a slippery slope where reality played second fiddle to experience and emotional appeal trumped rational argument. All this degraded the value of truth, and so also decreased the negative value of lies, until truth and falsehood became of marginal importance.
If there is to be a way back from here it will be long and hard. Somehow, mainstream, credible political parties need to reestablish their honesty and integrity, to prove that they can be trusted to say the truth, not just what focus groups tell then goes down well. The only good news is that honesty and authenticity are now highly valued. Indeed, one reason why Trump got away with saying so many outrageous things is that people saw that as proof that he was a fallible, real human being, not a slick product of the party machine. We must start proving our honesty now so that we are ready to pick up the pieces when the populists’ lies are revealed for what they are.