Why we vote for liars
The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.
Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.
The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”
If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they’re wicked – though some are – but because they’ve learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners. Say what you will about Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot, but they ran relatively honest campaigns on the issues, and the voters rejected them. The political market spoke many years ago and continues to speak: Telling the truth is not great for campaigns – and if it were, more people would be doing it.
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.” As soon as they could, voters replaced the non-lying liar with Ronald Reagan, a man so smooth even he didn’t know when he was lying.
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, as Jamieson and Waldman demonstrate in a long chapter about Al Gore’s image problems. Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet or to have discovered Love Canal. He did, however, falsely claim during the 1988 presidential contest to have gotten “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail” while working as a reporter. Voters demand authenticity in their presidential candidates, even if the authenticity is fake, as was George W. Bush’s just-folks manner. To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation executive. To lie about a legal matter is to be a lawyer. To lie about international power relations is to be a diplomat. But to lie about who you are is to be a hypocrite, and voters despise hypocrites.
The telling of durable, convincing lies signals to voters that a candidate possesses the political skills to run the Executive Branch. “In American politics today, the ability to lie convincingly has come to be considered an almost prima facie qualification for holding high office,” Eric Alterman writes in When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. More in sadness than in anger, Alterman beats up on Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan for their presidential lies. So much of governance is about deception, bluff, and double-dealing.
Voters especially don’t mind if their presidential candidate tells a lie that appears to repudiate the party’s most sacred principles. For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents. If they’ve hung with him this long, Romney supporters know that his presidential campaign has been one long lie – first to convince the Republican Party that he was an honest conservative and now to convince voters in the general election that he’s a devoted moderate.
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.