Truth and Politics

Many of us are cynical about promises made by politicians. “Campaign promises are made to be broken” is a venerable truism of American politics. There are “truth-in-advertising” laws against misrepresentation by private businesses, but no such protections apply to political speech.

Why do politicians so often deny, stretch, obscure, evade or mutilate truth? In brief, they do so to gain or hold public support. As Machiavelli taught in his 16th-century classic “The Prince,” political leaders should fudge the truth to placate the populace while strengthening their grip on power. In a democracy, this means deceiving voters. George Orwell’s classic “1984,” with its element of Newspeak (“freedom is slavery”) gives a timeless warning: Language is a powerful political tool or weapon.

Deceitful politicians are seducers. The seducer’s success lies in telling people what they want to hear as a means of being able to do what he or she wants. The challenge lies in discerning between when a politician is seducing or is being genuinely honest.

Franklin Roosevelt, for example, campaigned as a conservative in 1932. He promised to rein in the enormous increases in federal spending and budget deficits. He denounced Herbert Hoover’s centralization of economic decision-making in Washington. However, once he took office, FDR reversed himself and out-Hoovered Hoover.

Bill Clinton was a brilliant politician/seducer. In 1992 he assured union workers that he would protect them from foreign competition; once elected, he signed NAFTA and other trade agreements. Clinton also won votes by campaigning to the right of George H. W. Bush on taxes, but proceeded to raise some tax rates as president.

Republicans claimed for years to be the party of fiscal responsibility, but after a few years in the majority during the presidency of George W. Bush, their actions belied their words.

How is truth faring in Washington in 2009?

Despite promises of transparency, hundreds of pages of the “stimulus” package were added in the middle of the night behind closed doors, and a decisive vote was forced before congressmen could even read the bill. Ditto for the recent cap-and-trade bill.

Recently, President Obama made this political promise: “I want to be very clear: I will not sign on to any health plan that adds to our deficits over the next decade.” This is reminiscent of earlier presidential promises that Social Security taxes would never exceed $30 per year and Medicare would never cost more than $1 billion per year.

Here’s my economic promise: I want to be very clear. Adding healthcare costs for tens of millions of Americans (and, if Obama gets his way, for millions of illegal immigrants) to the federal budget will increase deficits.

Political spin abounds in the present. Take the word “stimulus:” Contrary to the Keynesian myth of a magical “multiplier” effect from government spending, contemporary economists find no multiplier, no net gain in wealth from government spending. A dollar spent by government is offset by that same dollar not being spent in the private sector.

Obama’s policies—capital-devouring deficits, suffocating regulation, growth-killing tax increases—will do the opposite of stimulating the economy. According to research done by Christina Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, every government tax dollar reduces GDP by three dollars. Nevertheless, Obama pushes hard for a cap-and-trade excise tax on energy and a healthcare plan that raises taxes. He will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire and vows to raise income tax rates on “the rich.” These taxes will not stimulate the economy, but anesthetize it. Maybe that is why the Federal Reserve predicted that there will be no new net jobs in the United States for the next five years.

And how about financial matters? The Federal Reserve has reclassified “borrowed reserves” as “free reserves,” creating an illusion of soundness in weak banks. Similarly, the Treasury reportedly reclassified some indirect bids on government debt to create the appearance that foreign demand is stronger than it really is.

Many voters don’t understand high finance or basic economics, so they trust whatever their partisan leaders tell them. Politicians have become secular priests and preachers, telling their loyal adherents what to believe as truth. Thus, there are differing versions of truth. Republicans, for example, are more likely to believe that Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson knew they were going to escalate wars overseas even while they ran for reelection on the theme of keeping American troops home. Conversely, Democrats are more prone to believe that “Bush lied” to get us into Iraq.

It isn’t always easy to find the truth, but it is absolutely essential. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.”

Yes, politicians lie. Their business is getting elected, not truth-telling. It’s OUR job, our responsibility, to figure out the truth, as Jefferson’s wise words imply. Until Americans become better informed, politicians will be tempted to avoid telling us “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”