Why we vote for liars

October 9, 2012

The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.

Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they’re wicked – though some are – but because they’ve learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners. Say what you will about Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot, but they ran relatively honest campaigns on the issues, and the voters rejected them. The political market spoke many years ago and continues to speak: Telling the truth is not great for campaigns – and if it were, more people would be doing it.

The one presidential candidate in recent memory to win the White House posing as a truth teller was Jimmy Carter, who famously promised early in his campaign: “I’ll never tell a lie” and “I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact” as president. These promises drew instant fire from the press, most notably Steven Brill, who flayed him in a March 1976 Harper’s piece titled “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies” (subscription required). Carter, who told no fewer lies than the average candidate, paid a political price for his promise, as everyone turned up their radar. “By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that’s going to be his standard,” said Alan Baron, George McGovern’s press secretary. “Well, fine, let’s hold him to it.” As soon as they could, voters replaced the non-lying liar with Ronald Reagan, a man so smooth even he didn’t know when he was lying.

Some of the lies the candidates tell are innocuous and are not held against them, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write in their 2003 book, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World. For example, “It’s great to be in Kansas City” is a completely acceptable lie, as is the platitude, “Nothing is more important to me than the future of our children,” Jamieson and Waldman write. Nor do voters care much if candidates claim to have “led the fight” for a piece of legislation if all they did was vote for it or sign it. Moving up the ladder of lying, candidates rarely are forced to pay a political price when they butcher the truth, even in presidential debates. ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” said Vice President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Peter Teeley in 1984, adding a “so what?” to the fact that reporters might document a candidate’s debate lies. ”Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”

Campaigns can survive the most blatant political lies, but candidates must be careful not to lie about themselves – or even appear to lie about themselves, as Jamieson and Waldman demonstrate in a long chapter about Al Gore’s image problems. Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet or to have discovered Love Canal. He did, however, falsely claim during the 1988 presidential contest to have gotten “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail” while working as a reporter. Voters demand authenticity in their presidential candidates, even if the authenticity is fake, as was George W. Bush’s just-folks manner. To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation executive. To lie about a legal matter is to be a lawyer. To lie about international power relations is to be a diplomat. But to lie about who you are is to be a hypocrite, and voters despise hypocrites.

The telling of durable, convincing lies signals to voters that a candidate possesses the political skills to run the Executive Branch. “In American politics today, the ability to lie convincingly has come to be considered an almost prima facie qualification for holding high office,” Eric Alterman writes in When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. More in sadness than in anger, Alterman beats up on Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan for their presidential lies. So much of governance is about deception, bluff, and double-dealing.

Voters especially don’t mind if their presidential candidate tells a lie that appears to repudiate the party’s most sacred principles. For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents. If they’ve hung with him this long, Romney supporters know that his presidential campaign has been one long lie – first to convince the Republican Party that he was an honest conservative and now to convince voters in the general election that he’s a devoted moderate.

The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That’s because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit, and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.


I’m an honest man only because my memory isn’t good enough to remember all of my lies. Send your lies to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and fact-check my Twitter feed at your own peril. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Pencils in the colors of the Italian flag with the head of Pinocchio are displayed for sale in Rome, July 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

So you are blaming the Sheeples, Jack! Well, the Sheeples
will be shorn, and will not inherit much no matter how meek they be, or unmeek as the bleat to their fleecer!

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

I’ve listened to Romney carefully on some issues, aggregating his responses over a long period of time to the same basic questions. Last year during the Republican primaries, I’ve watched the Youtube videos claiming to show Romney’s bald-faced hypocritical lies. But I can’t see it.

What I do see, mostly, is Romney explaining different ASPECTS of the same underlying policies to different groups of people.

Yes, we do see a little movement in his underlying position here and there; but mostly, the “movement” people talk about merely amounts to honest salesmanship. I don’t see anything that fundamentally cannot be reconciled with the null hypothesis (default theory) that Romney is a man of integrity and principle who happens to be an excellent salesman (an unusual combination of qualities, for the reasons you rightly explain).

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

BTW, the same can be said for some other politicians (perhaps Obama falls into this category)… Often, while their actual position might be nuanced and sophisticated, they selectively de-emphasize the parts of their message that may be least palatable to their current audience.
It’s a rare thing to demonstrably catch a politician in a truly brazen lie (Eliot Spitzer, New York; comes to mind as an example of that with his anti-sleaze political platform — “lie” is a strong word, but many politicians surely do lie.)
Surely we should apply to politicians the standards of scrutiny that we wish to be measured by, ourselves?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

“I’m an honest man only because my memory isn’t good enough to remember all of my lies”.

That’s been my motto for years too. But I usually leave out the lies because I’ve moved around so many times in my life until the last 20 years, I don’t give a hoot what the neighbors think. You have to really know your audience or neighborhood to really know how to lie effectively to it. Modern life encourages anonymity. Expectations about what proper behavior is have changed so much – has been out-right schizophrenic – since the 50’s that one had better figure who you are yourself or you will never know. Modern life doesn’t seem to value long memory either.

At Mathewslymen – There’s no such thing as “honest salesmanship”. I never listen to them. I can usually make up my own mind about what I want or need. You have to know how to recognize quality yourself. Advertising fortunes are wasted on consumers like me.

Politicians, especially Presidents, once they get into office, seem to forget the lies that got them there and have to concentrate on the demands at hand. Obama isn’t very different than Bush and even Bush would have had to continue the stimulus checks (it’s amazing how many people seem to have forgotten about them) and would have been faced with the same industries that required bailouts and even TARP (maybe with a different name). All classes in this society are voters and all have to be satisfied. And this country needs every income strata to spend money or the economy suffers. It’s an ecosystem.

This country loves it’s own self image(s) and lies to itself about itself all the time. That’s called having a “good attitude”. I find it a lot less exhausting and confusing doing what a guy I once met advised.” He said if you’re going to be depressed be depressed. If you’re going to be happy, be happy”. That isn’t fool proof but it’s cheaper than Meds or mood stabilizers. Oops, there goes another piece of the economy.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“TARP” — I thought the Bush II administration came up with that name, and that the Obama administration merely changed some of the details (diverting some funds away from Republican constituencies and toward Democratic ones — another of my perennial gripes with our politicians/ imperfect political system.)

> “At Mathewslymen – There’s no such thing as “honest salesmanship”. I never listen to them.”
— I’m much like you, in that I totally ignore adverts (in fact, I hate adverts so much that I install software on my computer to block them all, I block all tracking cookies, and I don’t even have a television — because I want to be in control of my own learning & purchasing agenda.)
ON the question of “honest salesmanship”… I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time. I have come to the conclusion, after a little more thought, that:

honest salesmanship = presenting all of the relevant options while fairly emphasizing the parts of each option/message that will entice the hearer to do what will ultimately be for their own benefit (selling a win-win deal).

I think such a thing exists but I struggle to find this quality in its pure form in any politician I have ever known about, within living memory. So perhaps Jack Shafer is right…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Great article Jack. I was hoping to see OOTS comment on this.
I despise politicians socially, but I do understand their plight. They absolutely have to be very good liars. It truly is a job requirement. Necessary evil and all that. Personally I do not like Mr. Boehner, but I do not envy him having to talk to AARP one day, and then the Tea Party the next day. Both grouped large and powerful, both threating to oust him.
I believe in government for the people, but I’m not so sure I believe in by the people anymore.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

This is not a credible article. The author is trying to sunstantiate his claims of lying with this example:

“For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents.”

Nothing in this statement proves or even suggests that Romney is attempting to “dupe” anyone. He is simply acknowledging that you must have some level of government regulation. During the debate, Romney went to criticize that Obama’s policy of over-regulation is hurting business.

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but notice that the author conveniently fails to cite an example of Obama when trying to substantiate his claim of rampant political lying. Curious.

Not buying it, Jack. Nice try.

Posted by really12 | Report as abusive

@Matthewslyman – “TARP” – My mistake. But I do recognize that the aim of the rescue funds and the stimulus funds were different. Bush’s earlier (pre TARP) stimulus checks went to those already employed – before the real estate crash. Obama walked in to a different situation. The stimulus checks couldn’t hide the fact that the economy was still weakening. How does a very high priced nation survive in the face of a majority of much lower cost labor everywhere else without having to lower costs somewhere (everywhere) to adjust to that fact?

And the US does something else developing economies don’t do. We put products and services in place where other less developed economies don’t. An awful lot of labor is done in developing economies that is not monetized. If they live with old infrastructure even that isn’t valued at the same level as we do it with our abundance of fresh off the press mortgages. They may actually be living with a better quality of construction. It makes my eyes ache every time I see photos of the buildings that are being destroyed in the ME.

I live at about tenth of what my sister lives at and do so much myself that does not appear as money transactions. In other words, I use my own labor and that has no absolute value. I have no idea what it could be valued at actually. I cannot arbitrarily assign a dollar value on my labor unless what I do has been tested in the market place. I don’t assign a value to it at all. But I cannot arbitrarily assign a high value to it or it will face stiff competition on the labor market. I am in a conundrum myself. I am not a major consumer and therefor, I don’t do this economy any favors. And I don’t have the option to just spend until my credit card bursts into flames (or I burn it). With relatively small funds I can do a lot with it because I employ my own arms, legs and mind. That is not the rule of the American economy. People who have nine to five jobs actually are enslaved by them and are forced to find outside help to do many things they don’t have the time to do themselves. But that makes more employment and causes more money to change hands than what I do.

I’m not holding my breath that Romney will be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat. The Massachusetts economy has unique characteristics that the rest of the country does not share. It is the home to several very wealthy and prestigious universities and college and dozens of minor ones. It has the high tech sector along 128 and also a number of major insurance and financial firms in Boston. Lower income retirees tend to move out of state to cheaper states and take their health care costs with them. There will be no magic solution for the rest of the country without undermining the Massachusetts economy. Why would biotech move from 128 when they liked they educational and financial support of Metro Boston? Why would the major insurance and financial firms do it either?

I don’t object to Obama’s policies because he is doing what Roosevelt had to do in the only way the economy has left. The country has been forced to prop up all levels of society at the same time. Obama got in with traditionally Democratic union support and he can’t undercut them with make work programs at minimum wage. That’s why he has had to rely on entitlement programs and not so necessary infrastructure improvements. But neither can the Republicans without opening the door to fierce social unrest.

Those all seeing cell phones and internet sites will notice everything that is embarrassing about any major proposals to do anything. Instant feedback is a bitch, actually.

The last five years has been a lesion in political and economic theory that is a lot more than theory.

I don’t know that salesmen can afford to be objective product analysts. They have to have very patient bosses with deep pockets to be able to pull that of.

The country is stuck in a morass of it’s own devising and it all looked good at the time.

Not even warfare is much help because the world will not allow itself to be raped or plundered. They have educations now too. The Iraqi’s knew enough to hold onto the furniture.

BTW – I’m waiting for the old wind bag OOTS too.

I don’t believe in the power of positive thinking. I can get that out of a pipe. If none of the candidates can come up with proposals that can withstand Lucy’s withering critiques, Charlie Brown doesn’t stand a chance.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

It’s just a lateral pass in football. Pass the ball every so many years to the other party, but the advance continues. I cannot believe how much faith people have in someone they’ve never met and never will. We are all slaves to them, a mere numerical population to feed their wealth and power. And they’ve got you all believing that they do it for concern over you because they feel your pain. They do it because it works.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

I find those who claim to be the most religious tell the biggest / baddest lies. e.g. Tony Blair

Posted by Caspary | Report as abusive

This must stop! Presidential candidates should hold themselves to the highest standard. Purposely lying to win votes or to create a buzz is on the same lines as taking cheating in sports. Cheaters must be stopped and do not deserve to be the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world. We should hold ourselves to higher standards and not vote for those who do not tell the truth.

Posted by Hman22 | Report as abusive

@Hman22 – You overestimate public appetite or liking for “the truth”. Few people like unflattering “truths”.

One is even expected to exaggerate one’s resume or make sure one never puts down anything that suggests one isn’t totally sold on the lies you might write there.

Risk or stretching the facts sells better than candor.

“No one likes a looser” and patriotic rhetoric and jingoism is the stuff of pulp media. Armies lie to themselves all the time and sometimes that is even the right thing to do.

The only time people don’t like the “lies” is when the lies aren’t working.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

While the article states clearly that ‘politicians lie,’ it then goes to to detail Romney’s sins. Does anyone seriously believe that Obama was being truthful when he first ran for the Presidency and said that he was against gay marriage? He gave gay advocacy groups the smoke-filled-room wink to get elected, and then pretended to have a road to Damascus moment. Obama lied to get elected, just as JFK lied about the bogus missile gap to get elected. Reagan was famous for his scrambled stories, in which he tortured the facts, but I don’t recall him taking a stand on an issue that he didn’t believe in.

Posted by MarkBee | Report as abusive