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The Cost of Deceptive Politics

11/09/2012 11:55 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013

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At the heart of our ad-saturated democratic process is a moral paradox. Politicians raise and spend billions of dollars to convince us to trust them with the responsibility of governing us. But (as I argued in an earlier post) the fevered competition for votes virtually compels them to lie to us. Because lying inevitably undermines trust, including citizens' trust in their leaders and in government generally, we have cause to worry about the increasing dishonesty of political campaigns. For leaders distrusted by their constituents cannot hope to unify them behind efforts to tackle the urgent problems afflicting our communities, states, and nation.

As this year's elections proved, when today's consultant-driven campaigns fixate on the likely "effectiveness" of their messages, accuracy is a secondary concern. It's a circumstance that reminds me of a wonderfully cagey line from the movie, Something's Gotta Give. Trying to assure a skeptical Erica (Diane Keaton) that he has feelings for her, love-averse Harry (Jack Nicholson) earnestly declares, "I have always told you some version of the truth." When Pamela Meyer points out that people lie -- and are lied to -- far more often than we think, I take it she includes the brand of lying favored by politicians, namely, advancing misleading "versions of the truth." Like Erica, voters are in a quandary: We want to believe what we're hearing, but we know most "versions" of the truth are lies.

Occasionally, politicians make baseless assertions that are simply false and easily refuted. Thus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly -- and falsely -- claimed that Mitt Romney "hadn't paid any taxes in 10 years." But, usually, politicians' prevarications have some connection, however sketchy, to the truth.

Indeed, it is possible for political advertising to be deceptive without saying anything false. For example, just days before the election, the Romney campaign ran a television spot in Ohio whose voiceover concluded with: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job." In fact, Fiat did buy Chrysler, and the company does plan to open Jeep plants in China. However, the ad clearly implied -- despite Chrysler's vigorous denial -- that this would entail job losses in Ohio. The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" blog described this as "an excellent example of an ad that has a series of statements that individually might be factually defensible, but overall the impression is misleading."

In politics, lying by distorting facts takes many forms. A common tactic is to pull a remark out of its original context and depict it as meaning something the speaker never intended. A notable instance is Republicans' deliberate misconstruing of Obama's "you didn't build that" comment about how business relies on public investment in infrastructure.

Another rhetorical device is to affirm as true -- or even certain -- a view that might be true but which lacks strong supporting evidence, such as that a controversial policy "created" millions of jobs. Conversely, politicians sometimes pretend that a firmly established hypothesis (e.g., that humans contribute to global climate change) is much less certain than it is, fallaciously treating it as dubious because some people doubt it.

There are, of course, numerous other ways to misrepresent the facts, and politicians -- particularly when running for office -- find it hard to resist them.

What all such types of lying share is that they are attempts to manipulate people's beliefs, to induce them to accept a claim -- for the manipulator's own purposes (e.g., winning votes) -- apart from whether it is true or supportable by sound reasons. The manipulator is trying to deceive the audience into thinking the contention is true or well-grounded and therefore should be believed -- when in fact it shouldn't, at least not for the "reasons" offered by the manipulator.

Political leaders who trade in misrepresentation and half-truths seem to ignore the fact that lying to the people they serve -- or seek to serve -- violates the common moral principle that, absent moral reasons excusing it, deceiving others is wrong. (Such reasons include, for example, protecting national security and catching criminals.) This principle is one of the fundamental norms that make up the implicit social contract enabling us to engage in the myriad sorts of cooperation and competition on which our lives depend. Without the general acceptance of these principles -- some of them given the force of law -- proscribing various kinds of harmful acts and injustices, our institutions could not function and civil order itself would not exist. Life would be, as Thomas Hobbes put it, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

From a moral point of view, what's wrong with deception is that it is a betrayal of trust. You cannot deceive someone unless they trust you, believing that you're being truthful with them. When you succeed in deceiving them, you exploit that trust, using that person for your own ends. In every domain of life, such betrayals weaken or destroy the trust relationships essential to our vital institutions, including (among others) marriage and family, business, education, and representative government.

The health of a democracy depends in part on the ability of its leaders to muster popular support for their policies, and that requires widespread trust in those leaders. In fact, the trust of constituents is one of a political leader's most valuable assets. But lying to voters squanders that trust and diminishes his or her capacity to lead.

As citizens, we have a responsibility here too. We have to impress upon those who would lead us that we do care about truth and honesty and that losing our trust is an unacceptable cost of deceptive politics.

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