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The politics of lying

When people say‘all politicians lie’, they cannot seriously mean they all hold to the same standards of veracity as Donald Trump. But how do you measure degrees of lying in politics?

Paul Krugman suggeststhat the Republican party’s problems began when they started pushing the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves. The notion that cutting taxes will bring in more rather than less tax revenue is a theoretical possibility but has been shown by study after study to be empirically false. But why was this lie worse than others?

I would suggest the following. The lie became (and continues to be) a major plank of Republican policy. We are not talking about being economical with the truth with statistics to present a party’s policies in a more favourable light. This lie was ultimately an attempt to legitimise cutting taxes on the very rich, and reducing the size of the state (because when the tax cuts did not pay for themselves the next step was to cut spending to control the deficit). It was a lie that went completely against expert opinion, and was at the heart of Republican economic strategy.

Lying in this fundamental way distorts the whole direction of political activity. It and its supporters begin to focus on ways to hide the truth. It means setting up think tanks whose aim is not just to push the party line, but also to provide a counter-weight to, and therefore neutralise the power of, real expertise. Such think tanks involve an element of ‘pay us your money and we will push your interests’, which is why right wing think tanks are the least transparentabout their funding. It also means using partisan media outlets to present an alternative reality to voters.

If you can get away with this, then why stop at one crucial lie. Politics becomes about choosing the lies they can get away with that will promote their cause. It is about what lies sound plausible to particular voters, or what lies a partisan press can reliably sustain by selecting evidence to support them. Lines between politics and journalism in partisan outlets becomeblurred.

We see the politics of lying all the time in totalitarian regimes, or regimes that control much of the mean of information. What I think has surprised many is that two nations that pride themselves on their democratic traditions and independent media can reach a point where the leader and ruling party of one lies all the time, and the other undertakes a huge constitutional change on the basis of a campaign where one side liedwith impunity. The Brexit campaign did not lie for the fun of it, but because it would gain them votes, and what evidencewe have suggests their lies were believed.

It is not hard to understand why these two longstanding democracies succumbed so easily to the politics of lying. First, they tolerated the growth of a partisan media that danced to whatever tune their owners played. Second, the remaining non-partisan media placed even-handedness between each side, the political horse race and entertainment above informing the public and telling the truth. The Clinton email controversy illustrated clearly a failure to apply any notion of balance. Calling the £350 million a week figure ‘contested’ was literally being economical with the truth. The BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has a secret caveat: informing and educating does not include anything deemed political.

What I find surprising is not just that this happened, but that the non-partisan broadcast media has so little interest in doing anything about it. In the US, when Trump complained about his coverage, CNN hired someone nominated by Trump. In the UK the BBC sees no evil, and bats away letters from the Royal Economic Society about its Brexit coverage as just one more irritating complainant. Understandable given business models and constant attacks on Fake News/Liberal bias by the political right, but it means both countries remain wide open to the politics of lying.

Longer read on similar themes: Post-truth and propaganda



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