You can lie to a stranger but not to a spouse, right? After all, if you’re caught lying to your spouse, you can do serious long-term damage to your relationship. We’re very motivated to be honest in our most intimate relationships.
We’re also more motivated to lie in our most intimate relationships. After all, if we tell our spouses what we really think about everything including their expanding paunches and boring stories, we could do serious long-term damage to our relationships. It costs us much less to flash honest middle fingers at passing motorist than at spouses.
The more intimate we are the greater our motivation both to tell the truth and not tell the truth. The stakes go up but in opposite ways and not just for spouses but for anyone who needs to maintain intimacy with someone.
Politicians may seem the most impersonal artificial people in public life. So why do they make such an effort to feign intimacy with us? Other celebrities don’t beg us for our intimate support. Kim Kardashian doesn’t stump on bended knee like a politician.
Our relationships with politicians are inherently intimate. Their decisions could get us killed, make us bankrupt, ruin our children’s lives, or give us the leg up we need to change our destinies. Politicians have a lot of leverage over our lives. Trying to become and stay intimate with each of us, politicians are under extraordinary pressure to tell the truth and to lie.
Because they’re competing against each other for exclusive intimacy with us, the pressure is more than extraordinary. In politics, the winner takes all, but the loser still pays. The Obama and Romney campaigns have both sunk over half a billion into winning. Whichever campaign loses will be out all of that money with nothing to show for it. For the winner, the investment was worth it all, for the loser a total waste. Politicians have to engage in desperate attempts to win voter intimacy.
We the people have three basic attitudes toward lying in politics:
- Zero tolerance: “Politicians shouldn’t lie. They should be honest with the American people. That’s what people really want, and even if they don’t it’s immoral to lie and it sets a very bad example when people in high office do it. More important still, when politicians lie, they manipulate us into doing what’s bad, even deadly. I hold a zero tolerance policy about lying politicians. If both parties are lying, I’ll simply boycott democracy, sending a clear signal that if politicians lie, I’ll have nothing to do with them.”
- Infinite tolerance: “Yeah the politicians I support lie. But so do their opponents. Let’s get real. Politicians lie. They even lie about each other’s lies, making a big stink over their opponent’s lies while downplaying the significance of their own lies. That’s all part of the game and may the best politician win. Stop whining about the process. And cut the hypocrisy. Stop complaining about my politician’s lies, since your politicians lie too. ”
- Selective tolerance: “Politicians have to tell the truth and they have to lie. We lie to ourselves when we pretend that they can tell the truth always or that they can be allowed to lie anytime they need to. A politician who always told the truth would last as long as a spouse who always told the truth. And a politician who believes his ends justify any quantity of lying should last as long as that short-lived spouse, because a politician’s license to lie anytime is a recipe for screwing over your intimates, whether they be spouses or the general public.’
We the people get silly when we claim that political lies are absolutely unacceptable, or totally acceptable. Asking politicians never to lie is like asking welders not to wear gloves. Lying comes with the trade. Letting politicians lie anytime is like letting police use their guns however they want. Guns come with the policeman’s trade, and they have to be governed.
Subscribing to zero or infinite tolerance, either of the two opposite extreme, naïve, silly arguments about political lies is a way we lie to ourselves, shirking the hard work of figuring out which lies are necessary and which are intolerable, pretending instead that we can apply a convenient all-or-nothing rule instead of making the very tough calls about which inconvenient truths are best concealed or best revealed.