In defense of political lying

April 23, 2014

If you read closely, you can almost glean a laugh track from the transcripts (pdf) of the oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court on Tuesday in the political lying case, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The justices sprayed gentle ridicule and subtle sarcasm on Ohio State Solicitor Eric E. Murphy as he attempted to defend a state law that bans false statements during a political campaign.

Uniform enforcement of the Ohio law — and the dozen and a half other similar state laws — would reduce our political campaigns to what? Three or four months of observed silence before each Election Day?

Aside from money, nothing is more integral to a political campaign than lies. Campaigns lie about the other campaigns; they lie about their own positions, too. They lie about the consequences of the legislation and policies they propose. They lie in their speeches, they lie in their campaign literature, and they lie on TV, radio, on billboards, and over the Internet. Lies, integral as they are to campaigns, can’t be exterminated unless you snuff the campaigns themselves.

I rise to the defense of political lying not because I’m a liar. Well, I am a liar — but I’m so terrible at it that I limit my mendacity to stretching the truth only, making me a non-lying liar. My complete defense of political lying would, of course, fold in the criticisms expressed in Tuesday’s oral arguments, namely that such statutes suppress free speech and political speech during a political campaign. And who wants to trust a bunch of state bureaucrats to determine, during the heat of a campaign, which side is telling the truth?

My position is more basic and more principled than the one the justices seem to be carving out. In the American tradition, some campaigns seem almost completely composed of exaggerations, fabrications, and unbelievable promises and pledges.

Take for example, President Barack Obama’s statement, a cornerstone of his permanent political campaign, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” He or a top official have expressed this thought at least 37 times, and you don’t need a state of Ohio ruling to tell you it is not and was never true. It was a lie so monstrous, so expansive, and so consistently applied that I have nothing but admiration for the way Obama and his team sustained the lie before the professional fact-checkers dragged them to the turf and ate them alive.

Politicians lie for so many reasons that it’s hard to pin a single motivation on them. More difficult to mine than bitcoin, the truth remains a commodity too dear for politicians to spend on campaigns. Only in Aaron Sorkin’s cinematic fantasies does a candidate win by brushing every issue with the broad stroke of truth.

The truth is too often unpalatable to the electorate and too complex to express. Political campaigns are about telling the voters what they want to hear, not giving legal depositions, and about inducing voters into pulling the lever in a candidate’s direction. Show me a voter who believes political campaigns are about the truth and I’ll show you a 14-year-old who should be prosecuted for electoral fraud.

“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings,” as Hannah Arendt put it four decades ago. Sometimes politicians lie because they think it expresses a higher truth (see the Obama example) or they come to believe their own lies, which would seem to apply to President Richard M. Nixon’s entire career. I know this sounds terrible, but as Arendt also pointed out, we should tolerate political lies because they serve as “substitutes for more violent means,” making them “relatively harmless tools in the arsenal of political action.”

If enforced routinely, state laws banning campaign lies would relocate the political process from the noisy and quarrelsome public sphere to court-sized rooms where “non-partisan” commissions and tribunals would attempt to sort out fair from unfair, legal from illegal, in everything from bumper stickers to buttons. As the justices noted in oral arguments, this has the potential to replace political campaigns with endless litigation, and move power from the electorate to the bureaucracy. As I said before, who exactly trusts bureaucrats — who got to where they are by being political — to referee these political fights?

After enduring two-plus centuries of political campaigns, American voters have largely normalized the lies issued by candidates and campaigns. Backstopping the public’s well-earned cynicism are those cynics in the press, who eagerly debunk the whoppers, large and small, produced by candidates and distributed on the hustings. I declare this the best of all possible worlds.

Only a military coup will prevent the Supreme Court from obliterating the Ohio law when it issues its decision before summer recess. But if the law endures, I’m sure campaigns will roll out their back-up plans to undermine it. They’ll tell more crafty lies. They’ll say things without actually saying them — “praeteritio,” as it is known among rhetoricians — and otherwise flex their imaginations to devise less easily-policed deceits.

The campaign hygiene authorities will regret the arms-spiral they encouraged and pine for the old days, when campaign dishonesty could be flushed from the bush and disarmed without using a big gun and expensive dog.

Campaign lies I can live with. Campaign cops make me shudder.


Wouldn’t it be easier to identify and punish the politicians who tell the truth? Send depositions to and monitor my Twitter feed for lies. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama speak directly to each other during the second U.S. presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar 

Confetti obscures the stage as U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates after winning the U.S. presidential election in Chicago, Illinois, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Scott- Andrews


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Liar liar pants on fire, no winners when no one can tell the truth ..

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

That is correct, citizen, your government is utterly false built upon lies to protect the rich and powerful from the poor. Go outside and sing your national anthem again, swear allegiance again to that worthless piece of parchment called the constitution. You have been, and continue to be, manipulated and controlled for the benefit of those in power.
Today you learn the Supreme Court sanctions government by lies, yesterday you heard that there can be no limits on the money spent by the liars to control the population. We are a nation of idiots controlled by thieves. You can expect even more of the same tomorrow.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

Now, it appears the US Supreme Court has agreed that campaigns are about money and falsehood, yet, in spite of limiting these vices, they have decided to inundate us with more. Even, if as Hannah Arendt argued, that it’s the best of evils, wouldn’t it be reasonable for the justices to place minor safeguards against these minor evils at all?

Posted by 0okm9ijn | Report as abusive

I can only guess how those that founded this nation, wrote the precious founders documents to shape and guide this nation would respond if here today. The “First Amd” has been battered as to “freedom of expression” or Corps are citizen-people (even if some are mostly offshore, our version of “Business illegals here in USA”, and the purchase of election is OK are 1st AMD etc. Same for the gunnies and Second Amd, which some think means any gun any where for anyone” AKA No restrictions nor required pre-gualifications, other then in some cases a backgound check to buy/permits. So we “jus strap on our big irons en go to town” (as might hurt gun sales-mfgs).

Now formally OK’d to lie to citizens and pols proud of such and when caught in lies, “well we expect that of them”, which merely feeds the beasts more. The core issue is NOT the lies, as it is only a lie if one is able to know the truths. Our education systems at all levels, has so failed most, the to expect most citizens to engage in any sort of well informed citizenship, as large as semi-honest elected/business operatives.

We are rapidly becoming a two class society, culturally economically, educationally and for most, to dumbed dwon to know it.

We would if legal, probably stone to death anyone whole told us the truths of our new USA, instead we now have the money folks assuring anyone who does get close to reality of most, economically stoned by lies, PR and fear mongers. So went Rome, but most probably never read of such, so really does not matter. as the sheeples graze, actively practicing informed voting for some a dancer, singers etc, even in some cases paying to do so, So a bit of education for the nation, no those folks trying to survive on that island are not really in danger, and yes the middle/lower class in USA are.

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

Yeah, let’s see how many politicians support lying with the upcoming elections – good timing for this debate.

Is honesty so very hard? Most decent people I know – respect honesty a lot more than any spin or lie.

If I really thought a candidate was being 100% honest; I wouldn’t have to agree with him on every topic.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive

Lying is a time-honored tradition in American politics. It all really got started with our first “Dirty Tricks” president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson planted false stories about John Adams in the press and also took most of the credit for the good work John Adams did in diplomatic circles in Europe. So, what do you expect with such an august “leader” as the role model for all subsequent political battles?

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

Mr. Shafer….applying your logic, all lies are immaterial to any conversation. However, you ignore the fact that an individual perjures himself when lying or misrepresenting information while under oath.

One would suspect that Mr. Shafer’s tolerance (actually closer to an endorsement) of political lying would cease once that lie or misrepresentation is about you personally or someone close to you. One could reasonably be sure that under that situation you would exercise your journalistic talents to defend yourself.

The mere fact that Mr. Shafer embraces the idea that overt lying and misrepresentations are acceptable in politics only serves to reinforce the fact that politicians repeatedly exempt themselves from the norms of reasonable and ethical behaviors without consequence; which easily extends from lying and misrepresentations, to violations of the ethics policies within their chambers, to overt stealing and ignoring of laws that would place any “normal” businessperson or citizen in legal jeopardy.

This is exactly what is wrong with our political system–in that lying is not admonished, but is reinforced, because those in the press (who have specified protections under the 1st Amendment), ignore their moral their responsibility to inform the public of the actions of their elected representatives–so long as it suits that same journalists political predispositions.

Therefore, there are no limits on the ability of any politician to lie, cheat, or steal to achieve their personal and political objectives–ALL AT THE EXPENSE OF THE AMERICAN CITIZEN AND TAXPAYER.

To Mr. Shafer and all politicians…You are wrong. The end NEVER justifies the means.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

I appalled at the attitude expressed by this article. It should never be “ok” for a politician to deliberately lie, especially when campaigning for office. We have a crisis of accountability in this country-any politician that deliberately misleads his/her constituents should be held accountable. Any politician that spreads deliberate falsehoods about another individual, whether another politician or an American citizen should be held accountable. America is in trouble.

Posted by HensonE | Report as abusive

Over promise, under deliver.

Posted by Dr_Steve | Report as abusive

I’m so glad that SCOTUS says that lying is part of the norm in political life. (sarcastic) It now justifies our growing hatred towards ALL government institutions, including SCOTUS. Gee, in a U.S. Government class in high school and/or college, I can now tell my students that lying is ok. If lying to get elected to office is OK, than lying to get any job is OK, lying to get a loan is OK and lying to one’s spouse and to one’s family is OK. Great models for our next generations. Sheesh! What have we come to?

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

And a lie repeated enough times, with the aide of a ton of money from corporate and 1% donors, becomes “the truth.” People have to develop their “crap detectors” in order to protect the democracy but instead rally around the BS of people like that dumb ass rancher in Nevada.

Posted by johnnyboone | Report as abusive

How do you tell when a politician or lawyer are lying? Their lips are moving. What’s sad is the gullible in America believing the lies. As a progressive I see the lies and omissions coming from my side of the aisle. I also see the damn lies told by the GOP scaring people into supporting them. The worst lie told by the GOP is class warfare by only the Dems as if they themselves don’t take it to the Nth degree in supporting the wealthy.

The only truth Americans can rely on is those we elect are not for you we the people, they are for they their connected interests.

Posted by JamesChirico | Report as abusive

A good politician is able to take the interest of his constituents and convince his audience that his constituents interests are for the common good. One dose not have to Lie to achieve this . Only a liar lies. To convince someone that their interest is in the common good does not require Lies and deception. it requires stealth and good argument . To resort to lying takes a lier and a cheat. Once we give the green light to Liers, and take away the thrust and parry of good debate our culture is doomed. It seems Mr Shafer is a stranger to the joys of vigorous and intelligent debate .

Posted by dabney | Report as abusive

An excellent peroration on why there’s no point in trying to discover what each candidate stands for. They’re all lies anyway. So I’ll just go into the booth and go eeny, meany, miney, moe. And then vote for moe. That’s as good as any other system.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who actually believe the lies

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

Lol, yet another failed attempt at portraying the President and his administration as liars, even though everyone knew that some of the plans offered by insurance companies didn’t meet the ACA’s new standards.

That’s why they call it health care REFORM, duhhhhhhhh.

But I do agree, where politics is concerned, the ingredients label has officially been changed and truth can now be replaced by lies as needed.

This is all just another step towards the next American revolution, where the enemy is our own government and their corporate masters.

Posted by Rick_FromTexas | Report as abusive

This article was absolutely hilarious. Jack Shafer should do stand-up. His quote, “As I said before, who exactly trusts bureaucrats — who got to where they are by being political — to referee these political fights?,” had me in tears.

Who does trust the Supreme Court?

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

Attempted to submit this before, but must have failed.

So much wrong with this

1 – The argument that the way things are, and have been are acceptable. There are many historical examples that prove that this is wrong, the government, and those who want to be in government are not infallible and shouldn’t be allowed to lie. Civil rights violations were once kosher legally.

2 – The argument that this will allow elections to be decided by the court. Invalid, already precedence in Bush v Gore. They can interfere if they want.

3 – People give millions of dollars to push these lies to 300 some million Americans nearly 3 years before the next election. I don’t see a problem with them siphoning some of that off to spend a few million in paying lawyers to cry to judges. Save the rest of us some headaches.

Posted by LutherGameo | Report as abusive

Corporations are people; money is speech; bribery is the norm(campaign contributions, nod, nod, wink, wink), and lying in political campaigns is legal…and well…expected…of course. Expected in a corporations are people, money is speech, bribery is the norm sort of world view anyway. A flood of corporate political lies now drown out the puny little voices of the majority, and the source of those legal lies is hidden through PACs. Thank you Supreme court for facilitating an outright fascist oligarchy. George Orwell must be turning over in his grave.

Posted by anotherfakename | Report as abusive

now let’s talk about journalists, …………and how much time we spend trying to figure out if they are being devious, or merely insipid.

could you defend the ‘spin’, as being an integral part of news media, … the argument the same…?…..leave morality out of it…..we get the job done.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

The moral of the story is… oh, sorry there are no morals here.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

Everything in this article is a lie.

So is he lying or am I lying? And therein lies the problem with lies.

What’s the point of even talking if you can’t be honest about what you have to say? If you are branded as a liar; talking is simply a waste of breath and time anyway.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive

what would you say and do to win the biggest Lottery in the world..becoming President of the United States…..? It is the longest running reality program in show business. Sponsored by the Medical Industrial complex..the kind people who brought you Obamacare.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

I couldn’t imagine a system that disallowed all lies from a political system. I have visions of our political system becoming so tangled in litigation that nobody would ever get elected. Frankly, the application of real facts and verifiable data in political campaigns is so infrequent that the terms “Lie” and “Truth” seldom apply.

Taking such a suit to the SCOTUS is just as scurrilous. If they agree to hear it either outcome will end up embarrassing the court beyond reason. I find the whole thing a total riot.

Posted by Puterduude | Report as abusive