Politicians have a number of handy tools for avoiding the truth that do not involve outright lying. Before Donald Trump flushed any pretense of civility, it was bad etiquette to make outright false claims in public speeches. In 2015, former speechwriter Barton Swaim wrote that, “[O]ne hears very few proper lies in politics.” But even without proper lies, politicians were not trustworthy. Swaim notes that “[u]sing vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing” (The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, 2015: 28).
Swaim details at length the tactics he was asked to use during SC governor Mark Sanford's governorship, from sentence lengtheners to blatant red herrings. In a more recent piece for The Washington Post, Swaim writes, “This is what gives political discourse that distinctive air of unreality. Its language isn’t intended to persuade as you and I would try to persuade each other; it’s intended to convey impressions and project images and so arouse the sympathies of voters” (“Why Do So Many Politicians Sound Like Robots?” Feb. 2016).
It turns out that the problem with political rhetoric is not that it is difficult to tell which politicians are telling the truth and which aren’t, it is that none of them are, with different degrees of artistic flourish. Political rhetoric is not (and arguably has never been) about helping citizens form responsible political beliefs; it is about garnering support and unifying a voting base. This means that fact-checking, however entertaining, cannot help us vote better. Here are three ways politicians evade the truth.
In addition to making explicitly false claims, politicians dissemble by not answering questions and by using vague, emotionally charged language. If a politician were to say that she has “supported policies that have helped the poor,” it is difficult to say how we might fact-check that claim. What does she mean by “help” the poor? How do we know the causal effects of any particular policy? What does she consider poor? Consider that economists are divided on the effect of minimum wage laws. Some argue they are necessary to protect the lowest socio-economic groups, while many argue that eliminating minimum wage laws would actually help the lowest quintile by expanding their employment opportunities and preserving jobs. Given this sort of disagreement among experts, whether a politician supports or opposes minimum wage laws, he or she can claim—with a straight face—to support policies that help the poor.
Further, politicians make promises they have no intention of keeping, either because they are not interested in keeping them or because they are not within the purview of their office. For instance, politicians who promise to reduce government spending know that 60% of the U.S. budget is mandatory and only about 34% is discretionary. And because Congress plays a large role in budgeting, the amount that any government official can influence the federal budget is extremely low. Such promises are lying promises, intentionally deceptive. And since fact-checkers cannot fact-check the future or a speaker's intent, lying promises go undetected.
To be sure, not all unfulfillable promises are intentionally deceptive; some are simply made in ignorance or arrogance. Politicians do not know much of what the U.S. President can and cannot do until they are in that role. That is because information about what options are open to the president is kept confidential, usually on grounds of national security (see Beth Simone Noveck, Smarter Citizens, Smarter State, 2015). Plus, circumstances change in ways that prevent some promises from being fulfilled. Thus, politicians make ignorant promises. For instance, Obama vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo and to eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Did Obama make these promises with the intention not to keep them? We could never know, but it is quite possible that he just didn’t know what he could accomplish in these areas, either because he didn’t yet know what options were available to him as president or because subsequent events prevented him from being able to fulfill them. But again, neither Politifact nor FactCheck.org could help us decide whether Obama was trustworthy when making such promises.
Someone might object that fact-checking can at least help us form the responsible belief to be skeptical of political rhetoric. But fact-checking can’t even do this. Since it cannot detect the deception in dissembling, lying promises, or ignorant promises, its results are biased against those who make explicitly false claims. Thus, relying on fact-checkers can suggest one candidate is more trustworthy than another simply because one makes explicitly false claims and the other speaks in vague generalities.
If all this is right, public debates and political rhetoric are useless guides to responsible political belief—they are masochistic entertainment, an opportunity (not unlike sports fandom) to wave our values as flags and get our blood boiling with indignation. If you want responsible political beliefs, then it seems you are left to your own devices.
Being left to our own devices means we are all in what I call the “epistemic state of nature.” As in the famous thought experiment of a political state of nature, we can enlist the help of others in forming our beliefs, but we are on our own in deciding whom to trust and to what degree. But unlike the political realm, we cannot set up a public trust to protect us from irresponsible belief. Since all political commentators have one agenda or another, deceptive and misleading language is ubiquitous. This is a reason to be skeptical of political rhetoric. It should force us to ask what political beliefs are worth taking seriously. Which ones can I test? Which ones actually affect my life?
In my forthcoming book, Winning Votes by Abusing Reason (Lexington Books), I argue that responsible belief requires, not only a great deal of energy and skill in evaluating evidence, but the ability to recognize when exerting that energy is worthwhile. Having a responsible belief is more than simply having good evidence; it also requires an interest in truth, a humility to interpret that evidence charitably, and the courage to change your beliefs when the evidence doesn't favor them. But you would not muster these character traits when deciding on which movie to see or which route to take to work. The costs of deciding poorly are low. And you wouldn't muster them to argue about whether Pluto should be a planet. They payoff for being right is surely low. We put energy into believing when value of the belief (the payoff) is comparable to the value of the energy it takes to be right.
It is easy to be flippantly arrogant about which football team will win a game. Nothing hangs on being right. It is easy to be flippantly arrogant about immigration policy because what consequences are there for being misinformed or mistaken? On the other hand, if your livelihood or friendships or marriage depended on being right about something, you might put more effort into that belief (though this motivation is reduced when the consequences are not immediate: consider retirement savings, college savings, eating well, etc.).
I argue that the energy is only worthwhile when applied in contexts where it has tangible effects. Since political beliefs have few tangible effects, voter ignorance remains high. To believe responsibly, we need feedback mechanisms that benefit us when we are right and harm us when we are wrong. This means that the most responsible political beliefs will be those that influence decisions in the short-term, in local, voluntary organizations. Without such mechanisms, political rhetoric is no better than horoscopes. I may believe that “an important change is in my future,” but the idea that it is grounded in anything like reality is little more than dogmatism.
[Winning Votes by Abusing Reason: Responsible Belief and Political Rhetoric (Lexington Books) will be available December 2016.]