How Much do Politicians Lie, Anyway?

It’s another Presidential (primary) election season in the US, which means it’s time to trot out the old saw that all politicians lie. Politicians are not unique in this, obviously, but politicians tend to be characterized as much more profligate in this respect.

Fortunately, to some extent we can quantify just how much lying is going on. Do some lie more than others? According to the New York Times, very much so:

Donald J. Trump’s record on truth and accuracy is astonishingly poor. So far, we’ve fact-checked more than 70 Trump statements and rated fully three-quarters of them as Mostly False, False or “Pants on Fire” (we reserve this last designation for a claim that is not only inaccurate but also ridiculous). We haven’t checked the former neurosurgeon Ben Carson as often as Mr. Trump, but by the percentages Mr. Carson actually fares worse.

Carly Fiorina, another candidate in the Republican race who’s never held elective office, does slightly better on the Truth-O-Meter (which I sometimes feel the need to remind people is not an actual scientific instrument): Half of the statements we’ve checked have proved Mostly False or worse.

Most of the professional politicians we fact-check don’t reach these depths of inaccuracy. They tend to choose their words more carefully.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, has ratings of Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire at the 40 percent mark (out of a sizable 117 statements checked). The former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s negative ratings are at 32 percent out of 71 statements checked, a percentage matched by two other Republican contenders, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Rand Paul.

In the Democratic race, Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are evenly matched at 28 percent (based on 43 checks of Mr. Sanders and 140 checks of Mrs. Clinton). Outside of the primary campaign, we’ve continued checking the public statements of Bill Clinton since 2007; he comes out slightly ahead of President Obama in his truth-telling track record.

Examining the graph the author provides, it becomes obvious that we’re dealing with markedly different degrees of falsehoods. Perhaps surprisingly, mainstream Republicans like Marco Rubio don’t like substantially more often than Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But once you move into the more extreme right-wing candidates, the numbers start to look out of control. Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson have, out of the statements examined by PolitiFact, been found to be telling lies at least 50% of the time. Carson is the worst, with a whopping 84% of his checked statements being considered false in some significant way.

The only mainstream Republican among this group is Dick Cheney, who was found to lie 59% of the time.

The Democrat with the worst record (among those listed) is Joe Biden with a 32% falsehood rate, tied with Rand Paul and Jeb Bush. Bush himself is rated as the most truthful Republican.

It would be interesting to see such fact-checking performed against major media sources, as well, since while politicians themselves may be careful enough not to lie outright, voters obtain their information from a variety of sources–most of them non-politicians, but rather journalists and pundits, the latter of which are often described (or present themselves) as experts. Such individuals have a freer hand to spin fabrications, as they aren’t running for office.

What is truly alarming, though, is the extent to which Republican primary candidates who are outright lying most of the time have attracted the largest share of likely primary voters. Based on the Huffington Post’s current GOP primary poll tracking, the top four candidates are Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson. Together, they represent 73.3% of Republican primary voters–almost three quarters! It should surprise no one at this point that Trump holds the largest share at 38.1%, though some polls are placing him above 40% right now. Of those four, all except Rubio lied far more often than they told factual statements. Rubio was split more or less evenly.

The Trump phenomenon has been written about at great length as various commentators, pundits, and bloggers attempt to understand how a candidate like Donald Trump can have more appeal than any of the other Republican candidates. I have presented my own thoughts on this previously, but I am even furthered troubled that, in addition to Trump’s hateful and divisive rhetoric, he also lies on a constant basis. Carson, for his part, while less obviously aggressive, is still more of a liar, his “information” coming mostly from the Bible and other religiously-based sources rather than credible news media and academic research–witness Carson’s apocryphal (but nonetheless widespread) story about the Egyptian Pyramids being granaries built by Joseph. Trump’s statements tend not to originate so much from religious materials as they do his own imagination, such as the statement–which Trump reiterated over and over, despite contrary evidence–that American Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11 as the World Trade Center towers burned and collapsed. When questioned about such an occurrence, Carson himself agreed that it happened, but his campaign had the good sense to offer a (weak) retraction later.

The most disturbing part of all this is that, as important as fact-checking may be, it is clear that to a large portion of the electorate, facts do not matter. Ironically, this is perhaps some of the best proof of constructivism one is likely to find. A worldview can be built out of essentially any set of information and experiences, and there is no requirement that such information have a basis in facts. In many cases, a lack of verifiability is actually evidence that one’s worldview is correct: the proof can’t be found because it was purposely covered up, which proves a conspiracy. When it comes to Trump and his mysterious celebrating Muslims, that no footage or reportage of such events can be found only demonstrates that the news media are plotting against him and trying to discredit him. Those who say the Pyramids are not granaries built by Joseph are anti-Christian atheists attempting to undermine the faith of believers. After all, is Obama not a Kenyan Muslim bent on destroying America to fulfill the anti-colonialist dreams of his father? Such outlandish “theories” abound in the conservative right-wing, bubbling throughout fringe sites and personal Facebook pages, spreading memes that don’t have to be true, but sound just plausible enough for the predisposed to accept.

You won’t see Jeb Bush claiming Obama is out to destroy America, because although they are political adversaries, Bush still believes in, essentially, a culture of “gentlemanly” cooperation in Washington (or, if you prefer, likes to pretend it still exists and that he would respect it). Trump and his ilk have no such compunction, being willing to say and do virtually anything to attract support. Dick Cheney famously said that “deficits don’t matter.” In truth, facts don’t matter. It only matters what you can get people to believe, and appealing to fear, as Republicans competed with one another to do last night, is very effective at short-circuiting rational thought processes and evoking a strong emotional response toward supporting whoever promises to allay those fears most effectively.

It’s hard to say whether the rhetoric will calm down once the actual primary elections start being held, and it is by no means clear whether the outcome of the GOP primary will nominate a palatable establishment candidate like Rubio, a demented crank like Trump or Carson, or saddle the party with Cruz, who is widely hated within the GOP but rhetorically consistent with Trump.

It would be entertaining if it was a reality show. As a contest to decide the fate of the American Presidency, it is more disturbing than anything.

Photo by Mary P Madigan

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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How Much do Politicians Lie, Anyway?

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