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Why Our Politicians Can't Stop Lying

Getting to the bottom of an eternal question.

One of the odder consequences of the tangle of distortions, deceptions and fabrications that prepared the way for the US declaration of war on Iraq in 2003 has been a renewed scrutiny of the many flavors and uses of mendacity in political life. Some of these investigations have been narrowly focused on enumerating the many damaging fibs perpetrated by President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team to manufacture public consent for a war they knew to be a hard sell on evidence alone. But others have taken the form of reflections on lying itself—as much to parse its varied modern guises as to reconsider its effects. A few years ago, television comedian Stephen Colbert began offering late-night cable audiences amusing, bitter lessons in “truthiness,” his term for a gut feeling about what constitutes truth in the absence of any real logic or proof. As Martin Jay points out in his erudite The Virtues of Mendacity, Colbert’s neologism was intended to capture the particular spirit of our times. In his brief Why Leaders Lie, John Mearsheimer has similarly extrapolated outward from specific cases, taking to heart Hannah Arendt’s famous maxim that “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues” and creating a veritable catalog of recent justifications for lying in office. According to Mearsheimer, a foreign policy expert, lying in interstate relations is actually considerably less prevalent, or dangerous, or even frowned upon, than might otherwise be assumed. More worrisome is when elected leaders spread falsehoods about international affairs and engage in fear-mongering on the home front, as happened during the Bush years. Such lies produce not only political debacles, Mearsheimer asserts, but also a culture of dishonesty in which trust in policy-makers and, potentially, democratic governance is undermined.

In a presidential election year such as the present one, however, we tend to fixate on deceptions of a different sort: the lies told by candidates rather than by those already securely in power, misrepresentations of self rather than of the world at large. And this year’s presidential aspirants have already provided a bumper crop for our consideration. In Newt Gingrich we had, for a few months, a prime example of the kind of political dishonesty that is easiest to expose: “serial hypocrisy” (as Ron Paul labeled it), or preaching one thing on the campaign trail and practicing another in private life. Exhibit A could be Gingrich on the stump earlier this year excoriating the profligacy of Freddie Mac, the very mortgage giant that had recently paid him handsomely for his work as a consulting “historian.” Exhibit B, in a shift from financial to libidinous hypocrisy, might well be Gingrich’s attempt as speaker of the House to impeach then-President Bill Clinton over sexual indiscretions committed in the White House—even as Gingrich was quietly cheating on wife No. 2 by sleeping with his own very junior staffer, soon to become wife No. 3.

Personal hypocrisy, though, is just one type of dishonesty common among politicians, and perhaps not the most worrisome. As David Runciman argues in Political Hypocrisy, there is a special kind of dishonesty associated with misrepresenting oneself entirely in one’s political capacity. Is there a better model of this type than the flip-flopping, shape-shifting Mitt Romney, who eagerly denies responsibility both for his past accomplishments and his past positions, thus leaving the public mystified as to who—if anyone—the politician might be, or which of his many contradictory statements count as true? Earlier this year, while moving hard to the right, Romney eagerly shed the positions he’d held as a former healthcare-reforming governor of Massachusetts. Lately he’s been busy reversing course, insisting that he’s always been in favor of government subsidies for student loans despite his earlier statements to the contrary, and arguing that he deserves a large share of the intellectual credit for bailing out the auto industry, despite having written a New York Times op-ed called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”