In the age of fake news, lies, and propaganda, our political paradigm is becoming increasingly strained with the often casual relationship our representatives maintain with the truth. Everybody agrees that lies are bad, yet they persist. Any functional public conversation requires at least some unanimity on the world that exists outside our own personal experience. It’s our key reference point, where our ideas play out, how we know which policies work and which don’t. Lies create distortions and false impressions that cause us to lose our way.
We the people remain at least somewhat to blame for this status quo, however; it’s easy to forget that we technically hold all the power. Through electing our representatives, candidates and incumbents alike are required to conform, at least in part, to our whims. We dictate the incentive structures within which they must operate, a potent tool in its own right.
To this end, it’s worth considering why it is that politicians lie. Obviously, part of the explanation is simply because it’s preferable to facing the truth. But why is this so? It seems the ubiquity of dishonesty in our democratic process has numbed us to its indecency, erasing much of the shame such behaviour carries in normal life. So much so that it has now become preferable to admitting honest mistakes. This is what needs to change.
Of course, nobody wants mistakes, we want good governance. Realistically though, has there ever been a flawless government in the entirety of human history? Will there ever be? It might be a truism, but governing a country is really hard. That’s not to excuse error, but rather to explain it. We should be less sensitive to mistakes than we are at present. Lowering the penalty for policy miscalculation will, in time, make lies superfluous, implicitly raising the penalty for evasive dishonesty and strengthening our representatives’ relationship with the truth. It is only when ‘failure’ is not an option that lying becomes your only recourse.
Of course, in improving the transparency of our politicians, a change in attitude would no doubt improve political engagement too. For instance, consider the following scenario: An election is approaching. During a TV interview, the incumbent Prime Minister is asked a question about an area of his/her policy which is known to have fallen short of expectations. In such a situation he/she is faced a number of choices. They could lie, they could deflect, or they could face the truth head-on, admit where the policy had fallen short, specify why it had fallen short and exactly how they plan to fix it pending re-election.
It’d probably sound something this like this:
‘This government is well aware that [policy X] has failed to have the desired effect. It’s clear now that this was because of [reason Y]. Accordingly, if I am re-elected I will make [the following amendments] to neutralize this problem and ensure this area of policy operates as intended.’
Can anybody honestly say they wouldn’t prefer such a response to the slimy obfuscation we are typically served from probing interview questions? We all have so much to gain from transparent, direct, and honest answers like these. It’d represent not only a huge change to those that run the show in Westminster but for the entire media reporting on them, the polemicists attacking them and, of course, the voters that are forced to listen to them.
Just imagine how much more functional the political process would be if we could effectively leverage these disincentives to lying. Restoring even just a kernel of honestly would go a long way in repairing what to many seems like an increasingly alien political system.