If we can all agree on one thing in the United States, I believe it would be that at one point or another every politician lies. It may be intentional; it may not. I further believe that this “disease” as it were is not isolated to the modern politician. We have a habit as humans to remember people in a higher regard, sometimes, than they actually deserve. For instance, President Thomas Jefferson, for a great number of people, is held in high regard for his writing of the Declaration of Independence and the model for which that set for this nation. However, many forget that while Jefferson was president he was almost impeached over the Louisiana Purchase because it was an illegal transaction. For another example, Benjamin Franklin is beloved, but he was a deadbeat father and philanderer.
When I was in my last academic year, I went to Washington, D.C. to do an internship with our local congressman. At the time, I would describe myself as a Democrat, as was this congressman. Georgia was still in that time period when most politicians still running as Democrats, but in office they typically voted more along Republican/conservative lines. I thought that I was sophisticated in my knowledge of politics; but within the next year, I was to learn quite differently.
To put this in perspective, this was the summer of 1989 and much was going on in Washington that summer. First was the House banking scandal, which I can tell you my congressman was deeply involved in. As I recall he was in the top 10 of congressman with bounced checks. I cashed some of those checks!!! Second, was the Senate mailroom scandal in which senators were abusing their franking privilege. Neither of these broke the news until after I had returned to school to finish my last semester. However, I will tell you that the first time I was sent to the House bank to cash one of those illicit checks, I did question it. It was pooh-pooh away as a normal routine. It was Friday and he needed money to travel home and a check would be deposited on the following Monday was what I was told. I shook my head and went on to the bank, but thinking about how I would go to jail for doing the same.
I believe that there are few reasons for why politicians lie. First, though, we need to review two important political concepts which deal with models of representation. These are important because how a politician views himself often explains his/her behavior. First is the concept of a delegate. A delegate is someone who is elected to represent a constituency and is to represent the attitudes, beliefs, desires, needs of that constituency. For instance, if a district is 90% farms, then a delegate is going to vote for those bills which benefit the farmer. It would be to his detriment to vote in any other way. On the other hand, there is the concept of the trustee. Most of us (voters) understand that there are many issues that we know little or nothing about and that we don’t have time to research adequately enough to make informed decisions and to pass along our opinions to our representation in Washington. These might be issues like nuclear power, defense weapons systems, or medical research. In these instances, our representatives look at themselves as trustees rather than delegates because they do have access to research and information in order to make informed decisions as to what would be in our best interest. The line between where a delegate ends and a trustee begins, however, can be and often is subjective.
One of the foremost reasons I believe politicians will lie is because they believe they are smarter than we are. This is that blurred line. Even in the situation where the constituency may be quite able to understand and relate their understanding and belief of an issue (for example, educational issues), often a politician will still believe that he/she knows more, has more data, and is more equipped to make a decision than we are.
Another reason is that they need to cover up a mistake they’ve made and so they craft the lie to make the error meaningless or, in the least, not as significant as it actually is. For example, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told the American people that arms had not been traded with Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, when he knew that they had. Most recently, Hillary Clinton crafted her words specifically and strategically always saying that she did nothing wrong regarding her emails, but the issue at hand was not her emails but her private email server. She also crafted her words to say that “everyone in Washington” knew about her email. This wasn’t so much a lie as it was putting President Obama on notice because he had received emails containing classified information from her private email server and did nothing which made him complicit. This was basically her way of saying, “Hey buddy, if I go down, so will you” because they both broke the law.
There is also another reason for a well crafted political lie that you might not think of right away. We want to be lied to because we don’t want to hear the truth. Sounds absurd, right? I think most often this relates to economics. We always want to hear that the candidate is going to fix what’s wrong, put more money in our pockets, and life will be grand. Remember, George HW Bush’s, “READ MY LIPS, NO NEW TAXES”? Those are words no politician should ever say because you just don’t know what is going to happen and why put that out there? We often expect way more from a politician than is possible, which often puts them in the position to lie. We will have to see, but President Trump may have dug himself a few holes on this one!
The atmosphere that exists in Washington creates an air of self-deception and promotes manipulation. When I attended graduate school in Washington at The American University and during the time that I interned, I was amazed at how manipulative, self-centered, and deceptive people were. In the congressman’s office, it seemed that staffers spent more time on the phones networking around D.C. looking for their next step up. The more “prestigious” job; the better paying job. The same was true in school. Students weren’t as interested in you as a friend as they were in who you might be “connected” to and how you might be able to help them get ahead. Whatever it took to make that “ideal” connection was what they were after. Quite frankly, I am surprised that there isn’t a course in the School of International Service or the Department of Political Science called “The Well Crafted Lie”.
Hannah Arendt wrote a book just after the Pentagon Papers were released in 1971 called, “Lying in Politics”. I will end with a quote from her.
“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Whoever reflects on these matters can only be surprised by how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought, to their significance, on the one hand for the nature of action and, on the other, for the nature of our ability to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the case. This active, aggressive capability is clearly different from our passive susceptibility to falling prey to error, illusion, the distortions of memory, and to whatever else can be blamed on the failings of our sensual and mental apparatus.” (https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/15/lying-in-politics-hannah-arendt/)
May we seek to be more active in politics and demand better from those we elect!