Do we really care if political leaders lie to us?

This afternoon I attended a terrific seminar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics led by Amber Diaz, a PhD student in political science at Duke. Amber was presenting some preliminary results from a large survey she has conducted on Americans’ reactions to learning that their political leaders sometimes mislead them. According to the Kenan Institute’s web site, her dissertation is tentatively entitled: “Bumbling, Bluffing, and Bald-Faced Lies: Mis-Leading and Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations.”

It shouldn’t surprise readers of this blog that during the discussion of many different kinds and contexts of deception in politics, it seems to make a difference whether we interpret the deceptive politician as being engaged in an essentially competitive or a non-competitive activity.

In competitive “games” — especially those involving strategic rationality, where one party is taking into account how the other is trying to outwit her — we routinely leave room for “ethical deception,” or at least ethically excusable deception. Poker players can bluff, quarterbacks can pump-fake, pitchers can throw change-ups, negotiators can deliver a phony ultimatum, detectives interrogating suspects can trick them into believing they already have DNA evidence proving their guilt; and so on.

What about political leaders? Do we demand that they always tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? We might be inclined to answer, “Yes, of course!” And when we say this it is because we are thinking about them as our public servants, with a fiduciary duty to look after our interests rather than their own. One of these interests is in knowing the truth, and not being manipulated or disrespected. We hate the idea that a political leader would lie to us because he knows full well we would not go along with his scheme. We hate it even more if he lies to us in pursuit of some personal or partisan interest.

Amber Diaz’s research aims to see just how righteously indignant we really are when we realize we’ve been duped. Is this something that we make politicians pay a price for? (Amber is more than welcome to post on this blog if she wants to tell us more about the answers her research and number-crunching are turning up!)

But the fact is, we are not always upset about politicians being deceptive, and not just in cases where we might want to say “I know he’s a sonuvabitch, but he’s our sonuvabitch!” Sometimes we recognize that politicians are engaged in deliberately adversarial contests; and we respect them for being wily in some of these situations.

This is most obviously the case in the conduct of foreign affairs (a realm Amber is looking at, in fact). Here we see our leaders as engaged, at least partly, in an adversarial contest against our national rivals or enemies. We expect them to deceive these rivals sometimes (e.g., to send spies and special ops into other countries), and this may well require that they deceive us too. Similarly, we might expect political leaders involved in sensitive international negotiations (e.g. for trade, or arms-reduction, treaties) to bluff and make hollow threats.

But we may even excuse deception within domestic politics precisely because we take seriously the constitutionally adversarial nature of democracy. Political leaders are not merely public servants with paternalistic duties to look after our interests. We have deliberately locked them into adversarial contests with rival politicians, and with rival sources of power in our society. We might want to tie one hand behind their backs in these contests. But if we understand the nature of our adversarial system, we cannot tie both hands. For this reason, as my colleague Kieran Healy pointed out in today’s seminar, we often gain a grudging respect for “successful” politicians who know how to win at the game we place them in — even when they are not “our sonuvabitch.”

In any case, if we are a bit confused or inconsistent in our evaluations or, or reactions to, political leaders lying — and this is what Amber’s preliminary data seem to be showing — it is at least in part because we are confused and inconsistent about how partisan or non-partisan we expect the game of politics to be.

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One response to “Do we really care if political leaders lie to us?

  1. I think this is a fascinating research topic that should be explored further. I believe a case can be made that we don’t necessarily expect our politicians to tell us the truth, but we expect the system to create disincentives to “breaking the rules” or giving out misleading information. I think is would be very valuable to examine the rules that govern the political playing field to determine what, if any, rules there are in place that keep politicians from lying to their constituents. Politics (at least in the US) are full of informal rules and institutions with a great deal of de facto power that coexist with the formal institutions with de jure power. Douglass North and Daron Acemoglu discuss the importance of both kinds of institutions in maintaining what they call the political equilibrium; basically in terms that we’ve seen repeatedly on this blog, in keeping the “rules of the game” fair.

    The election process in the US is the formal institution that gives the people a direct mechanism for punishing those “rule breakers” who deliberately give misleading information to deceive voters. It is clear, however, that this formal institution is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition to create any credible disincentive to the deceitful politician. Informal institutions are also necessary to publicize fraudulent comments or claims made by politicians to inform the voters of the comments made. The media fulfills this vital watchdog role, which together with the institution of elections, successfully institutionalizes the disincentives necessary to keep many politicians from deliberately misleading voters for their personal gain.

    This is obviously a very oversimplified and shallow overview of a couple of the institutions in our political system that attempt to keep the rules of the game fair. There are many more institutions in politics both formal and informal that serve similar functions, all to create disincentives in misleading the public. I think it is valuable to more thoroughly examine those institutions and why they are (potentially) failing to accomplish their aims. Perhaps the proliferation of the internet and misleading and false information on secondary (and less reliable) “news sources” and (ironically) blogs is contributing to the decline of these traditionally robust watchdog institutions. Or perhaps the political climate has become so politically polarized that people are ready and willing to overlook deceitful claims made by politicians because of their political affiliation.

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