On Truth and Lies in a Political Sense – Another Conversation with Eric Miller

by Matt B. on May 29, 2014

eric_258Eric Miller is a Wheat and Chaff regular at this point, and for good reason – the Bloomsburg University professor is smart, humble, and funny as hell. In this, our third conversation about political discourse, we begin with my recent essay about speechwriting at the White House. After that, we get at the hard question: can we imagine a politics without lying?

Eric Miller: I get the sense that this essay was cathartic for you, and I notice in the comments that you’ve described it as a first step toward greater insights. I’d like start there, where you left off. You wrote, I’m tired of being encouraged to admire people who treat the truth as just another tactic, who act as if there’s some higher goal but don’t have time to tell me what it is. I’m tired of being asked to choose between ‘leaders’ who suggest that the truth is quaint, insufficient for our rough-and-tumble reality. I’m tired of being asked to look up to men and women who are incapable of distinguishing the truth from their own bullshit. A cynical reader might read that and think, “Okay, idealistic guy goes to Washington, gets disillusioned.” How would you paraphrase the take-away from the essay and from your experience?

Matt Bieber: The sheer volume of lying required to run for office creates two risks that usually go unacknowledged. The first is that dealing in this much deception has a psychological cost – candidates lose their capacity to distinguish between truth and lies. And the second is that in the sheer confusion of living in such a world, candidates lose touch with their higher goals and become fixated on a single reference point: their own electoral success.

These outcomes are both bad for democracy, obviously. To me, the latter point is especially interesting; campaigns that begin as vehicles for lofty ideals often morph into personality cults. That’s not good for the object of the cult, but it’s not good for the members either.

EM: Our frequent elections are supposed to be hallmarks of democracy, keeping the leaders accountable to the people. But you point out that they incentivize behaviors that damage democracy. Is that a problem that can be addressed structurally? With longer terms or something?

MB: There are plenty of structural problems with our democracy, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. At the deepest level, it’s not our electoral processes that create such fucked-up incentives. It’s the expectations with which we conduct and participate in those processes. In other words, we are the incentives. We not only tolerate a thoroughly dishonest political culture; we actually demand it.

We do so because we’re afraid. In the short term, we’re afraid of losing to the other side. More generally, though, we’re afraid of overly-honest politicians for the same reason we’re afraid of being too honest with ourselves – because we know that if we start to acknowledge some of our doubts and uncertainties, then the whole edifice might start to shudder. We react badly at the prospect of seeing our self-consoling illusions punctured, and most people (including me) will do a great deal to avoid it. Like voting for self-deceiving political candidates.

Sometimes, though, this pattern of self-deception becomes so painful and claustrophobic that sticking with the familiar routine no longer works. This is what I’m going through. A certain disgust has developed – both toward the sheer quantity of bullshit in the world, and toward my own willingness to go along with it.

Does any of this resonate with you?

EM: It does. I make a living encouraging young people to become interested and involved in the political process, which is difficult when I often doubt its usefulness myself. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I see our current politics lacking in what people used to call civic or republican “virtue.” You hear stories about how, decades ago, politicians from different parties worked together out of a shared sense of duty to the nation. Things seem more cynical now, and as Jonathan Chait recently noted, we have a system in which the minority party has no incentive to govern well.

You place the blame for this stuff at the feet of the people, which I think is fitting. It’s popular to gripe about the representatives, because it obscures the culpability of the represented. But if “we” are ultimately to blame for this type of thing, what are we to do about it? How can I teach my students to be better citizens?

MB: You’re probably better suited to answer that last question than I am! I feel like I’m sorting through all this stuff on my own behalf, and there’s still plenty that remains un-sorted.

One thing that jumps out is your desire to encourage young people to get involved in politics. We generally take political involvement to be a good thing – Rock the Vote! – and I think that assumption rests on the belief that the process itself is basically good (or more good than bad, anyway). But what if that isn’t true? What if the process itself is corrupt? What if getting involved too early leads young people to think – and live – inside the box, to clip the wings of their own moral intuitions, to accept the unacceptable?

I feel like I saw a lot of this when I interned in the Senate – legions of twenty-year-olds parroting the cynicism of their bosses before they’d had the chance to earn it themselves. I don’t imagine they’d all come to Washington this way; I bet there were some real dreamers in the bunch. But many of them had apparently come to see their own spirit, vigor – and above all, questions – as signs of Jimmy Stewart naivete, and they quickly traded them for cocktail party gossip. (I’m sure I did the same – I wanted to play with the big boys too.)

None of this is to suggest that kids should stay away from politics for fear of infection. (You can’t learn everything from the bleachers.) But it is to say that just getting involved – in whatever form that takes – isn’t enough. A huge proportion of American electoral politics is about picking sides and going to war (and in the process, turning participants into foot soldiers). In other words, it’s deeply inhospitable to free and open inquiry – and that’s exactly what young people need. They need to be able to notice the gaps between what they’ve been taught and what they see. They need to be able to trust the questions that arise in their hearts. And they need people and spaces that will support them as they follow their instincts.

EM: They need to stop texting.

Since I spend so much time teaching students how to identify manipulative speech, and since that is a major preoccupation of yours, I’m wondering if you might say a little bit more about the type of dishonesty that has prompted your disgust. Are all dishonesties created equal?

In the essay, you mention that Biden is a bullshitter, but not a manipulator. You then identify Obama’s changing stance on same-sex marriage as symptomatic of the electoral game. To be honest, the first case strikes me as not that big a deal. The second is frustrating, but I can’t help but notice how much has been achieved by the LGBT community during the years that Obama “threw them under the bus.” In fact, after reading your essay the first time, I wasn’t quite convinced that these examples adequately support your argument. I couldn’t identify the camel’s back-breaking straw that pushed you to these conclusions.

So now for the part where I sell out to the process. You’ve touched on this elsewhere as well, but what about the point that statesmanship is a craft requiring finesse and strategy? What about skillfully navigating the political waters? Is it important that politicians always show their cards? Aren’t you demanding something of them that we do not expect of ourselves?

MB: It’s funny you ask that, because I was going to suggest the opposite. I don’t think we’d ever let friends get away with treating us the way politicians do!

A friend and I once confronted a third buddy about his habit of lying to get little things he wanted – telling us that his preferred restaurant was only a 10-minute walk away, rather than the actual 15. We asked him to stop, and he said he couldn’t promise to do so. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to punching him in the head.

One of the things that troubles me most about political lying is that it’s not always clear where it’s directed. I understand that the politician is trying to build a coalition, but is he lying to me or the guy I disagree with? This ambiguity leaves me feeling that even if I’m not being manipulated right now, I could be at any moment. I start questioning everything the politician says – his fearsome warnings about impending peril, his mundane policy positions, his ostensibly improvised lightheartedness and candor, even his most inspiring moments of moral ambition.

For me, this is just how distrust works. It would be great if I could compartmentalize things – to confidently discern when the politician is saying what he really thinks and when he’s lying for short-term strategic ends. And if I were on intimate terms with these folks, I probably could (eventually, we get to know our friends’ tells). But these guys are much further removed from our lives than that. They’re also professionals, surrounded by cadres of image masseurs and trained extensively in – let’s call it what it is – acting.

Given all of that, let me ask: does the voting public stand a chance? And if not, does that worry you?

EM: I’m not sure I know what you mean by “stand a chance,” but it reminds me of that great Walter Lippmann book in which he basically argues that the public never stands a chance, at least in the sense of truly knowing and understanding the issues. People have jobs, and families, and other commitments that prevent them from studiously considering every political topic from every conceivable angle. Even if politicians were all straight-shooters, the public still wouldn’t have the knowledge base necessary for informed decisions. I accept that argument for its realism, and I think you can do that without being left a fatalist. We can’t know everything, and we can’t trust everyone, but we can commit ourselves to careful discernment. Along the way, we might end up humbler for our efforts.

I suspect your comparison between leaders and friends is a not-very-useful one, if only because leaders and friends are different animals. I expect my friends to be open and honest with me, but I expect my leaders to guide the nation through the gauntlet of national exigencies. These are very different relations and roles. If strong leadership happens to conflict with honesty, I may be willing to concede a bit.

Let me stick with your example of Obama and same-sex marriage. I’ve always believed that Obama was lying about his opposition to same-sex marriage, and was not at all surprised when his view “evolved.” I could be wrong about that, and I know his surrogates still insist that it was a legitimate change of mind/heart, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that he was being dishonest. I think this is just one of many instances in which Obama conceals or misrepresents his political commitments strategically. Often, this because his opposition will always tweak its positions to be the polar opposite of his, whatever they happen to be. I’ve even read about certain advocacy groups asking the White House to downplay its support for their causes, if only to avoid a knee-jerk reaction from the GOP. This situation lends itself to a very simple political calculus.

So let me ask you a final question and give you the last word. Do you think Obama should be outspoken and frank on all the causes he supports, even if his support jeopardizes political success? Or, do you grant that some caginess – even dishonesty – can be justified by tangible results?

MB: I don’t know what Obama should do, but I know what happens when he does what he does: I feel confused and alienated in the ways I described above, and I suspect a great many others do, too.

It’s very easy for us to justify Obama’s lies about gay marriage retrospectively; as you pointed out, he’s done a great deal to advance equality since his election. But there are other costs, and they usually go untabulated. What about the ways that this kind of nonsense – invoking God to defend discrimination – marginalizes gay people and helps legitimize bigotry? And what if he hadn’t gotten elected? Would we still be trying to rationalize this kind of ‘strategy’? Or would we be more inclined to call it something else?

I was intrigued by the words you chose when you made your devil’s-advocate case earlier. You referred to “statesmanship,” “strategy,” “finesse,” and “skillfully navigating the political waters.” One word you didn’t use was “lying.”

I don’t want to psychologize you in particular, but I see this a lot – people almost never want to defend political lying in plain language. It reminds me of the debates about esoteric morality – the notion that it might be right to do certain things so long as no one finds out. In the case of political lying, it’s the reverse – we seem to believe that lying is necessary, but that we can’t afford to call it what it is. I think we can do better than that.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jesselava May 30, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Don’t want to get into a long back and forth here, but I do have some (non-rhetorical) questions. Let’s say everyone running for office were totally honest all the time and not calculating in what they chose to emphasize, downplay, etc. They just called it like they saw it, at all times. Presumably, there are some politicians whose actual views and emphases would happen to coincide with what’s palatable both to a majority of the electorate and to the elites who fund campaigns. In Darwinian fashion, wouldn’t those people be more likely to win elections? And thus, would our politics look a lot different than it does now? If it didn’t, would you feel any better about it? If so, why?

I ask because I often think about this in terms of campaign contributions. Social science research doesn’t really find that politicians tend to change their views on the basis of donations. So there’s no corruption in the mind of the individual politician. But there’s *systemic* corruption because the politicians who manage to obtain funding and win elections are the ones whose views happen to coincide with the interests of moneyed elites. Is this process of natural selection so much better? How much does it really matter what’s in the mind of the politician if the outcome for the public is very similar?

Matt Bieber June 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Wow, can you tell me more about this social science research? It seems extremely counterintuitive to me! Particularly when you look at really dramatic cases – Chris Christie apologizing to Sheldon Adelson for referring to the Occupied Territories, for example.

jesselava June 2, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Well, here we get into a problem of what political scientists tend to focus on. Usually they look at roll call votes since they’re easy to measure — so Adelson-Christie wouldn’t even be tallied. In terms of what the researchers do look at, some studies show a modest effect, others show none at all. Here’s one lit review finding that perhaps 1/3 of roll call votes show any influence of contributions — but that’s just to the level of statistical significance, not necessarily saying the influence made any difference in the outcome. http://bit.ly/1m7fiLd However, as anyone familiar with politics (unlike some political scientists) knows, the votes are not where the real action is. The question is what comes to the floor, how the language was altered beforehand, etc. And apparently there’s some newish research (which I didn’t know about when I posted the above comment) that actually delves into that pre-vote material and finds real influence. http://bit.ly/1rFIBwY Even then, though, that researcher doesn’t claim there are many quid-pro-quo deals being made — it’s more about who will end up having the ear of legislators, etc. So it’s still mainly about the conditions giving rise to this outsized influence rather than straight-up dishonesty — which is why I find those systemic issues more politically relevant.

Matt Bieber June 6, 2014 at 6:13 am

Nice – hadn’t seen these studies! And yeah, totally agreed about the importance of the larger systemic questions.

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