American politicians and public officials lie. George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bill Clinton about not having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Politicians before and after them have lied. But something seems different about the 2016 US presidential race so far. The scope of lying seems unprecedented, as is the reaction to the media when it calls out candidate fiction. The most recent example–Ben Carson’s lie about having being accepted at West Point andthe backlash by him and others against the press, claiming reporters are out to get him.
First, what is a lie? It is intentionally saying something one knows or should know to be false with the intent to deceive. This should be contrasted from a mistake. I may believe something to be the case when it is not and if a state that then it is not a lie, only a mistake. Lies can also be the withholding of critical or material information. I tell you only part of the truth and not the “whole truth” as we swear to declare when testifying in court under oath. There are also “white lies” such as “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.” They are still lies but the motive may be honorable, or at least not malicious.
Generally we consider lying to be wrong. We lie in order gave advantage for our self in a world where others act on the belief that we are telling the truth. For Kant, lying is wrong because we make an exception for our self a general rule that says everyone should tell the truth. Honesty is necessary for trust, to be able to get along with others, and to encourage reliance upon others. Live in a world where no one can trust one another and quickly we would fall into a Hobbesian state of nature.
Lies have been a part of politics since the days of ancient Greece. In the Republic Plato wrote of the noble lie–a story to tell people about the origins of social classes in order to justify political relations and authority. Rousseau too speaks of political lies in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, as does Dostoevsky in his tale of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. In perhaps the single best book ever written about political lies, Sissela Bok in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, argues against the claim that politicians or public officials can lie in the name of the public good. In a democratic society, lying to the public is wrong because it make you–the public official–the sole arbiter of what is the public good. That is the task of elections and the people who are sovereign. Additionally, lying to the public undermines political legitimacy and it fails to treat the public with respect.
But the lying we are seeing in 2016 is not of the kind above. What we are seeing are not lies in the alleged public interest. Instead they seem to be lies about one’s autobiography or about the state of the affairs of the world. For example, Carly Fiorina has lied both about the contents of a Planned Parenthood video and the percentage loss of jobs for women under Obama. Some have argued she has also lied about her career and working her way from secretary to CEO. Marco Rubio has been accused of lying about his family and the flight from Cuba under Castro. Hilary Clinton is accused of lying about everything if you listen to some.
In 2016 we are seeing a different type of lie, along with the reaction to it. Collectively, the Republican presidential candidates are at least in denial if not lying about global warming and its causes. Some are lying about their tax plans or their political records. All of them, but especially Trump, seem to be lying about who the unauthorized immigrants (illegal immigrants) are and what impact they have on the economy. The type of lies here are ones where even if they have made a mistake initially, the scientific or other evidence is overwhelming and when confronted with the facts, they should change their claims. But they do not. They remain fastened to their denials. Few want to call this a lie. Some might say a candidate is wrong or misinformed on an issue. Yet when individuals intentionally repeat information or make statements they know or should know are false, that is a lie.
But why do they lie? There are many reasons, both psychological and political. Perhaps it is ego, self-aggrandizement, or even the seduction of power. These lies are done to help them win elections by appealing to the prejudices or beliefs of some voters. There is a pure instrumentality to these lies. But most people don’t seem to consider these statements lies. Exactly why is perplexing. Maybe public expects politicians to lie. Or on some matters of public policy voters too are confused or they view political statements no more than mere statements of belief–akin to saying “tomorrow will be a better day.” Or maybe the public simply accepts candidate exaggeration–perhaps no different than when people lie on their own resumes.
Yet usually even if the public does not treat candidate statements about political issues as lies traditionally personal statements about one’s autobiography are viewed differently. Most voters can understand personal lies–claims that one did or did not do something in private life. Nixon lying about his involvement in Watergate is a good example.
Traditionally the role of the media in the United States is to seek the truth and publicize it. The Jeffersonian idea of democracy requires a free press to provide the critical information the public needs to know in order govern and make choices. The press also has a watchdog function, serving to uncover corruption and public deception in order to hold the government accountable. The gold standard of journalism, as well documented in All the President’s Men, is to provide two sources to corroborate facts. In fact, the job of a journalist is about publishing the truth by gathering and weighing the facts. Real journalism is not simply reporting what two sides say–such as what the Democrats and Republicans assert–but determine what is truth and print it. There are many economic reasons and pressures why the press often no longer does this, instead simply pandering to the prejudices of their audience into order to maximize revenue. As a result, public trust in the media is low.
Now enter Ben Carson. By all accounts he has repeatedly lied about being accepted to West Point. He never applied, never was accepted. The media reported that and now they are looking into other claims he has made about his upbringing. Why? If Carson is making his life story his political narrative he has placed it into the public domain for scrutiny. The press has a right to investigate it. Had Carson not made his personal life public then perhaps the press should not care, especially stories about who Carson was in his youth. But Carson is putting his personal character into political and public display, thereby making his lies relevant to his fitness for office.
No surprise Carson is angry at the press for effectively calling him a liar. More surprising is the public backlash against the media, with some claiming they are out to get Carson. Some of the reaction is political, some a product of the declining trust in the media. Some of it is cognitive dissonance, where supporters will dismiss information contrary to what they believe. One reporter I know calls this faith-based politics. No matter what the facts are one holds fast to one’s beliefs. My candidate did not lie, the media is out to get him.
Social media does not help. Who know what percentage of what is found on Facebook is even close to the truth. Facebook facts simply confuse more, sow doubt, and appeal to the ignorance, intolerance, and paranoid style of American politics that historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about. Nor does the American educational system help–increasingly it fails to do what the it should do–force students to confront ideas that challenge their prejudices. And the courts do not help–striking down lies regulating political lies.
So where does this take us? In the 2016 presidential election lying seems everywhere but it also seems no one is bothered by it. No one really thinks that truth exists or that anyone really tells the truth, or that it does not matter. Abraham Lincoln may have been wrong–perhaps you can deceive all of the people all of the time, and that no candidate (or group in politics) need fear the sanctions associated with lying.