How do you feel when someone lies to you?
It probably depends on who is doing the lying. A stranger’s fabrications may not phase you, but dishonesty from a friend or lover can end the relationship. The more you feel the liar is supposed to be “on your side,” the more his or her deceptions feel like betrayal — unless, it turns out, the lies come from a politician you support.
When I shared a link on Facebook to Rick Shenkman’s article “Why Are Trump Voters Not Bothered by His Lies?” someone immediately replied by asking, “Why are Hillary voters not bothered by her lies?” Why, in other words, focus on only one mendacious candidate when lying to voters seems like a prerequisite for running for office?
Shenkman, who is the editor of HistoryNewsNetwork.org and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, might respond with his claim that Trump “has told more lies than any other leading political figure probably ever has.” But his article is in fact about neither Trump’s astonishing number of fibs nor his supporters’ astonishing tolerance for them; it is about how widespread both such lying and such tolerance are across party lines and throughout the era of mass-media mass democracy.
Shenkman is writing for a left-leaning readership, thus his headline’s righteous indignation toward a right-wing candidate, but most of the examples he gives are of deliberately deceitful Democrats. He starts with candidate Kennedy’s campaign claim that the Soviets had more nuclear missiles than the United States:
He continued to insist that there was a missile gap to the Soviet’s advantage even after he was briefed by General Earl Wheeler that there wasn’t. After the election his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, told the press on background that a study had found there was no missile gap, leading to blaring headlines the next morning.
JFK’s reaction? He ordered his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to tell the media that there had been no study and that there was a gap. The truth was that JFK himself didn’t take his own rhetoric about the missile gap seriously. At cabinet meetings he cracked on numerous occasions, “Who ever believed in the missile gap” anyway?
Four years later, President Johnson “told the American people that the North Vietnamese were guilty of making repeated unprovoked attacks on [US] naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf.” As with Kennedy, we know that Johnson was being dishonest, not mistaken. “Hell,” LBJ told an aide, “those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
Shenkman barely touches on Nixon’s perfidy in Watergate and never mentions Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s 1994 interview, admitting that the war on drugs was not about crime or health but was rather a politically motivated attack on war protestors and American blacks. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” said the president’s former domestic affairs advisor. “Of course we did.”
And while he may have given Ms. Clinton a pass, Shenkman does mention the millions of supporters who refused to believe the allegations against her husband “until prosecutors revealed they possessed [Monica Lewinsky’s] infamous blue dress.”
No one should be shocked by the frequency of politicians’ duplicity, but it is frustrating when a candidate is caught in an undeniable falsehood and his or her supporters never waiver. Our political culture expects politicians to perjure and prevaricate left and right, but that doesn’t make their deceptions defensible. So where is the outrage?
“Our brains are partisan,” Shenkman writes:
While we are quick to seize on the misstatements of other candidates, we give them a pass when it’s our own. When the social scientist Drew Westen put voters in an MRI machine he discovered that their brains quickly shut off the flow of information contrary to their beliefs about their favorite candidates. The neurons actively involved in the transmission of this information literally went inactive.
It’s not just the political candidates who are lying. So are the voters. “We lie,” Shenkman points out, “about our unwillingness to put up with lies.”
If politicians keep lying and voters keep shrugging it off, isn’t that an indictment of democracy? Aren’t voters supposed to act as a check on the people in power?
In theory, an election is supposed to be more than a popularity contest. Candidates are supposed to represent an approach to policy making, which is in turn supposed to reflect both facts and a theory of cause and effect. What we have instead is a formalized tribalism, us versus them, facts be damned.
Shenkman assures the reader that the liars don’t get away with it forever, but his evidence for that conclusion is questionable. Johnson and Nixon are remembered as liars by both Democrats and Republicans, but the reckoning for Gulf of Tonkin and Watergate are outliers in the steady stream of deception flowing out of DC and the state capitals. Meanwhile, Messers Kennedy and Clinton will be remembered more for deceiving their wives than the voters.
Westen’s research on cognitive dissonance and party politics is troubling, but well before there was any hard data on how voters process unwanted facts, the theory of rational ignorance told us why so many facts are so unwanted: to the individual voter, the cost of acquiring the relevant knowledge far outweighs the practical benefits of knowing the truth when casting a ballot.
In contrast, the benefits of supporting a candidate accrue, not from any actual effect on the electoral outcome, but largely from the signaling that it provides the voter: this is the sort of person I am, and these are the sorts of causes I support. Symbolic affiliation isn’t dependent on the truth of any particular facts, so why should we expect inconvenient falsehoods to change anyone’s political alignment?
As I wrote in “Too Dumb for Democracy?” (Freeman, spring 2015), “getting an issue like the minimum wage terribly wrong takes no work and has the immediate payoff of feeling like you’re on the side of the angels. It also solidifies your standing within your own ideological tribe. Bothering to understand supply and demand … offers no practical reward after you pull the lever in the election booth.”
The lies we care the least to uncover are precisely those for which the cost of caring outweighs the benefits of our vigilance. That describes almost anything we may ever be asked to vote on. But when knowing the truth directly matters to the decisions we make every day — the truth about our jobs, our homes, our families and loved ones — the relative benefits of knowing the truth are far greater, and we therefore penalize the liars in our lives. Cognitive dissonance may be a barrier to accepting hard truths, but even cognitive dissonance is price sensitive.
The more decisions we cede to the political process, the less we should expect anyone to protect our interests. Even we don’t bother to do it, because the rules of the game — majority rules — render our efforts ineffectual. Worse than that: we’re not even rewarded for knowing what policies really are or aren’t in our best interest.
The truth can win out, but it’s a lot less likely in an election.