Why do politicians get away with lying?

Story highlights

In this election season, we've seen a lot of fibbing by presidential candidates

Historians, political scientists, technologists and others weigh in on why politicians get away with lies

CNN  — 

Editor’s Note: In this election season, we’ve seen a lot of fibbing by politicians. Are presidential candidates who persist in saying untrue things enabled by the Internet or the 24/7 media? Or have lies always been a part of politics, even in the early days of the Republic? CNN invited historians, political scientists, technologists and authors to weigh in.

Douglas Rushkoff: How the Internet enables outlandish claims

I used to argue that the Internet acted like truth serum: No matter what someone on television claimed, eventually someone would dig up the truth. Then, because it was the truth, it would eventually float up to the surface. It forced me and other writers to be more rigorous about our assertions, lest some expert eventually reveal that they are myths.

Douglas Rushkoff

The Internet is still a medium that favors nonfiction over made-up stories. While we may watch Netflix dramas over the Internet, the writing and videos populating the Web are mostly factual – in spirit, at least. A tweet or Facebook update goes “viral” because there’s a piece of truth or gossip in it. From the Arab Spring to Charlie Sheen, the most contagious Internet memes tend to be nonfiction moments. We don’t tweet as much about TV characters as we do about stuff the actors playing them have done or said.

What has taken me longer to realize is that no matter how fact-filled the Internet gets, without context there’s no way to really evaluate any of these supposed truths. A purported fact will spread more for its ability to inflame than its relation to the truth. On the Internet, information streams can be isolated, almost meaninglessly decontextualized triggers – or, worse, as elements in a feed algorithmically configured by a social media platform to keep users clicking and spreading.

Where news organizations may be trying to assemble a version of truth for their readers, social media platforms care only about views, clicks, favorites and retweets. And in such an environment, the most inflammatory triggers – the most outlandish claims to truth – easily surpass the boring old truths we need to address. A video of a decapitation gets more play than the exodus of a million desperate refugees. The unfounded accusation that Jersey City Muslims cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center spreads further than the real fear Muslims have of an America increasingly hostile to their existence here.

That’s because without anyone else to contextualize these claims, we fit all these loose facts into our personal, almost dreamlike mythology for how the world works. It’s a disorganized, impulsive and unconscious set of connections we draw – and the perfect palette for those depending on the darker side of human nature for traction and their personal gain.

Meanwhile, the speed and ethereal quality of these platforms – some, like Snapchat, actually erase messages after they’ve been read – keep those who spread the worst rumors from being forced to defend their claims. If one false story is getting challenged, they simply unload a bunch more. By the time a real truth has surfaced, the lie is buried so far down in the stream it doesn’t even matter anymore.

Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and professor of media studies at the City University of New York’s Queens College, writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is the author of the book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” and of the forthcoming book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity” (March 2016, Penguin).

H.W. Brands: Why the tolerance for lies?

It is almost certainly the case that political candidates lie less often today than their predecessors did in generations past.

H. W. Brands

This is not because they are intrinsically more honest but because lies are easier to catch. Nearly everything a candidate says is recorded by someone and can be fact-checked at leisure. In older times if a candidate was caught in a falsehood, the candidate could deny having said it, and no one could prove the opposite. In addition, candidates today speak less often through proxies than they did in the past. Before radio and television, a candidate’s spoken words carried no farther than the candidate’s voice. To reach other voters, candidates enlisted proxies, who could prevaricate with the impunity that came from knowing their words could be disavowed by the candidate if the words caused problems.

Yet the current campaign, especially on the Republican side, demonstrates a remarkable tolerance for misstatements and outright lies. The tolerance appears to reflect a dual disdain for the objective media and for experts. If CNN refutes something Donald Trump says, Trump supporters are more likely to believe Trump than CNN, almost regardless of the evidence brought to bear. And people who reject the consensus of expert opinion on weighty topics like climate change have little problem rejecting expert opinion on the fluff that constitutes much of campaign rhetoric.

It is significant that the tolerance for misstatement seems strongest among supporters of the protest candidates: Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. These supporters appear more interested in signaling dissatisfaction with the status quo than in determining policies by which the country might actually be governed.

In a basic way, Trump and Carson, especially, are not serious candidates — that is, they don’t take the business of politics and governing seriously — and so it is not surprising that their words are not taken seriously. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, by contrast, seem to be held to as high a standard of veracity as candidates in times past. That is what they get for being serious about the job they are running for.

H.W. Brands is professor and Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of numerous books about U.S. history, including “Reagan: The Life” and “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.” Follow him on Twitter: @hwbrands

Barbara Ehrenreich: A condition of survival

We live in a culture so dense with lies that a supposedly truthful statement has to be predicated with the words “in all honesty,” which may sound like mere verbal filler but actually sets off an alarm: If the speaker hasn’t been honest up until this point, what has he or she been doing — lying? Another trigger word is “narrative,” which seems to refer to a commonly held account or explanation of events, as in “the official narrative of what happened at Benghazi,” but instantly signals lie.

Barbara Ehrenreich

In fact, we are expected to lie, to, for example, reassure the overweight that they are looking trim. I regularly and automatically lie that I accept the “terms and conditions” of some program or app. You expect me to actually read the terms and conditions, which might go on for as long as 40 pages? I’ve also lied my way through the “personality tests” that companies impose on job applicants. Would I inform on a fellow worker whom I’ve noticed cutting corners or pilfering? Of course not, but job-worthiness depends on a willingness to lie.

We all know that politicians and advertisers habitually lie and always have. Staff officers lie to generals, or at least soften the truth; underlings lie to CEOs. But when you find yourself habitually lying, too, just as a condition of survival, you know we’re becoming a society where words count for little, where all that ultimately matters is money – or force.

Barbara Ehrenreich is founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of, among other books, “Nickel and Dimed.”

Meg Mott: Feelings matter more than facts

In America, when it comes to populist interests, facts are not as legitimate as feelings. At least when it comes to running election campaigns.

Meg Mott

Just take a look at our history. Back in the colonial days, while both New Englanders and highly educated Virginians revered sound principles and reason, the Western frontier was largely populated by communities of revivalists. These brave souls valued the experience of rapture over the laws and institutions of a seemingly distant government, finding more truth in the moment of spiritual possession than in the rules promulgated by the Federalists or the natural rights espoused by deists like Thomas Jefferson.

As historian Sam Haselby makes clear in his new book, “The Origins of American Religious Nationalism” (Oxford University Press 2015), the Protestant faith in general encouraged “their believers to come to their own relationship to the truth.” The elite on the East Coast may have created the formal institutions of American democracy, but Methodists and other revivalists provided the dominant gene for American political culture. Unlike countries where the church maintained an orthodoxy, it’s not unusual in the United States for each person to have his or her particular relationship to the truth. One can be pious without subscribing to the same objective truths.

During the primary election season, when candidates are appealing to voters in rural states whose ties to global capitalism are tenuous at best, they can’t sound too factual, too rule-based, too, in a word, smart. Rather, these candidates are demonstrating their legitimacy by their depth of feeling. For Donald Trump, the feeling he is personifying is indignation: Indignation that the world has become less friendly for rural white people.

This isn’t to say that facts are not important. The technocrats will have their role to play in crafting the fine details of new immigration or climate policies. But right now we’re engaged in a full-scale revival meeting in American politics. For those who want to dislodge candidates like Trump, the rebuttal should not be facts but a stronger relationship to the truth. Maybe some of Trump’s competitors will outshine him by employing a more intense form of rapture.

Meg Mott is professor of politics at Marlboro College in Vermont.

John McWhorter: What politics is all about

It’s always kind of fun to smoke out how what seems so vulgar or extreme today was actually going on in the America we know from stately black and white photographs and sonorous speeches.

John McWhorter

It is true that change – even progress — happens, if slowly, and the past was deeply different from the present in as many ways as it wasn’t. However, political culture in America has always been unabashedly dishonest. The reason politicians like Donald Trump seem to revel remarkably in lies today is that the Internet – an instantly available encyclopedia of everything – allows the lies to be disconfirmed so easily.

For example: Part of the reason students have demanded that Princeton University remove Woodrow Wilson’s face and name from the premises is that he celebrated the racist depiction of Reconstruction in the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” But it was not until 1935 that W.E.B. DuBois, with painstaking analysis of documents, deep-sixed the idea that the period was all about cynical white carpetbaggers and depraved blacks virtually soiling the chambers of Congress. He did this in his book “Black Reconstruction in America.” And even then, it took another few decades for historians’ consensus to line up with DuBois’ findings.

That would never work today. Those appalled by sentiments like Wilson’s could press some keys and dig up scanned documents and press accounts against his fantasy. No one could do that in 1915, and so Wilson could not be outed for his distortion. We feel like more public figures lie today because it’s so easy to catch them out – and, in another advantage of the Internet, air it fast, far and wide.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.”

Jim Warren: Civic engagement has changed

There’s a distinction between “media” and “journalism,” as Jeff Seglin, an ethicist at Harvard University, has noted. I wouldn’t say that A-list journalism organizations have enabled deceitful politicians. Politicians lie. This is nothing new. We’re lucky when the public takes notice. They have in the past, and they do today.

Jim Warren

While the Internet holds a vast amount of information, it takes some effort to sort the truths from the lies. In our somewhat defensive, reflexive thrust to praise the American voter, we should also note that many are downright ignorant. Perhaps it has something to do with the decline of newspapers. Civic engagement isn’t what it used to be.

Our current frustrations have to do with the fact that even though some candidates have fibbed, the public still supports them for a variety of reasons. Donald Trump’s fabrications and his steady public support seem counterintuitive, but that’s – politics.

Jim Warren is chief media writer for The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a national columnist for U.S. News & World Report.

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