The Sad Truth About Truth in Politics

04/16/2012 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2012
  • Terry Newell Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society

Most politicians insist that they will never lie to the American people. Most Americans, on the other hand, expect politicians to lie. That's the sad condition of our current political scene. As T.S. Eliot said, "between the idea and the reality falls the shadow."

How is this disconnect possible? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'truth' is." There is the legal definition -- "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," essential for our courts of law to function. Then there is the definition of a lie - "an intentional untruth; a falsehood." If these two polar opposites were all we had to contend with, getting people to tell the truth, and knowing if they had, would be easier than it is.

But in our political life, we too often conflate not telling a lie with telling the truth. But consider the following ways to not lie without telling the truth:

• Withholding and cherry-picking data -- we can hold some data back and thus tell only (our) part of the truth; we can select only the data we like. This is used, for example, to argue about global warming, where some scientists withhold data and where many politicians discount much of the data that does exist -- all to make their point.

• Suppressing contradictory information -- we can prevent the expression of views we do not like. How often do you see a political rally where those who disagree with the candidate are given the mike?

• Evading the subject or silence - we can refuse to discuss or respond to data or points of view we wish to ignore. "No comment" is the wily politician's touchstone.

• Spinning the story -- we can take any information and create a meaning for it that supports our point of view and denigrates other, plausible points of view. Political ads tell stories, usually negative but sometimes positive. These stories are often as fictional as bedtime stories, especially when they employ other tactics in this listing.

• Leaking selected information -- we can make sure information (classified or not) gets out that supports our view. This is common to capture the headlines, often to create disaster for someone else or explain away one's own failings.

• Being vague -- we can issue statements that are so general that they hide our real beliefs or intentions. Pledged to cut the debt, how many candidates said exactly what programs they would end or cut?

• Using a false analogy -- we can compare a point of view we like (or detest) to an historical or other analogy, even if that analogy is wildly inapplicable. Tea Party members are not Nazis and liberals are not communists. But those labels suggest analogies that are frightening, however unfair or illogical.

• Wild exaggeration -- hyperbole to make a point. The Affordable Health Care Act is not a government takeover of your choice of doctors and every act of deregulation does not sacrifice Americans' lives for big business.

• Plausible deniability -- we can act as if we are unaware of facts or actions that might cast our truthfulness or behavior in a negative light -- the proverbial super PAC ad, campaign staffer, politician-friend, or talk show host who "does not speak for the candidate."

Most elected officials do not consider these tactics lies. Indeed, most Americans do not consider them as lies either, at least when used effectively by a politician they admire. Yet, we all have a sense of unease about these methods. Otherwise, we would not find politicians so defensive when accused of employing them and ourselves so outraged when they are used against politicians we like.

The most worrisome result, however, is that the proliferation of the "non-lie" makes the truth both harder to find and harder to accept when we find it. We lose our trust in the truth, end even the possibility of there being "the truth."

When we cannot agree on the truth -- or trust it -- what is left to build our lives upon? If we play fast and loose with the truth, we play dangerously with our future. What makes effective politics makes bad government. That's the truth.