How Do You Tell When a Politician Lies?

The lips move.

The big lie of the week is use of this line from Obama:

Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. (See full context here)

Mitt Romney is, of course, only quoting this part:

If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.

Granted Obama did the same to Mitt Romney with the whole “I like to be able to fire people” comment. And that one was just as bad in my opinion. (And don’t even get me started on the “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” out of context quote!) So this isn’t specifically a Democrat or Republican thing. Both sides are completely untrust worthy when it comes to getting elected.

Many of you know that I’m very bothered by this sort of lying. It makes me not want to vote for either candidate.

I am as bothered by it as I am when someone that entirely disbelieves all the defining truth claims of the LDS Church intentionally labels themselves as a “Believing Mormon” to other members — knowing that the other member will think it implies belief in the truth claims of the Church — but fails to mention that they personally define that term quite differently than how it is normally used. (i.e. I really meant “I believe the Church is good” or something like that.)

Worse yet, check out this NPR news story which is an interview with Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone — Especially Ourselves. (See also here.)

His research has found that people in both parties in general have no issues if politicians on “their side” lie so long as it helps with the election and get their politic views implemented.

He found that people were totally comfortable with politicians of their own party being dishonest to get elected.

(On interesting side fact: Democrats are somewhat more in favor of lying than Republicans, though both in general seem okay with lying as a means to the end of getting elected.)

I have never been one of those people that feels lying is always wrong. Obviously lying about having Jews in our attic while in WW II Germany is the moral thing to do. And I can think of a lot of other examples that are a lot less extreme. It’s a complex world and things aren’t always so black and white, I admit.

But I also accept that lying always results in reduced trust, even in the moral cases. Even in WW II Germany, if you lie about having Jews in your attic and they catch you, they aren’t going to trust you any more. (And with good reason.) So all lies come with a cost. 

But honestly, right now I feel like puking over the fact that people are so comfortable with lying in politics and that both sides lie so readily. And I feel like campaigning for Obama right now because Romney is so obviously lying here. (Which would only last until the next time Obama lies, which will probably be by tomorrow.)

What are the long term costs of us being so comfortable with politicians lying (at least when they are ‘on our side’)? What type of damage are we doing to our civilization over time? Who loses out? Who will be the unintended victims? I just don’t know. But I suspect it will not be good.

41 thoughts on “How Do You Tell When a Politician Lies?

  1. Yes, the “that” clearly refers to roads and bridges, not to the business.

    If Mitt Romney were to promise we’d stop bombing other nations on a whim, and that we’d quit torturing people, I might actually vote for him. As it is, I may have to sit this one out.

  2. Forgot to mention: this sort of thing really makes me wonder about Romney’s next temple interview. I’m sure he’s paying his tithing, but it’s the honesty part I can’t help but question.

  3. Mark N, I suggest we be careful on how we judge people’s worthiness. It may be that Romney’s lies are smaller sins than some sins you commit. The Temple Recommend interview is not looking for perfect people, but for people who are striving to be perfect.

    I agree with Bruce that our national dialogue is not good. That said, it sadly is no different than the dirt thrown by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at each other. Yet, we still view both of them as excellent presidents today.

    I think we need to look beyond the rhetoric of the stump speeches and look at the actual lives and behaviors of the ones involved. What is their experience in government, business, society? How effective are they in getting things done? Do they compromise with the other side when necessary? Can they not only help fix the economy, but perhaps help restore a good moral climate for the nation again?

    I do not vote for a person on a single issue, as many do regarding abortion, etc. Lying is an important issue, but not the only one. We sometimes have to realize that both sides are going to lie on occasion, and then look at the overall character, behavior, and qualities of each one, prior to voting.

    And our Church leaders, while not endorsing anyone, have told us to vote. Not voting was not an option they’ve given us. So vote Democrat, Republican or 3d party. But vote.

  4. The bad news is how accurately the Book of Mormon describes our stage of politics:

    Hel. 13:22 Ye do not remember the Lord your God in the things with which he hath blessed you, but ye do always remember your riches, not to thank the Lord your God for them; yea, your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities. (Well, at least we don’t kill people for political gain, it is good thing we have proper judicial procedures for the people we kill in Pakistan, oh, wait a minute…)

    Hel. 13:27 But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.
    28 Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.

    That’s how flattery works, you tell your people that they are good and can do and get what they want. Be proud and free. Then you practice the nastiness on your enemies. The whole thing ends up seeming like hell:

    Hel. 13:36 O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery (i.e. massive lying, fraud, etc.), and we cannot hold them.
    37 Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.

    The next verse is the most chilling verse I know of:
    Hel. 13:38 But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.

    Hopefully it is not too late. How do you think the political process can be fixed? I don’t know how, short of general repentance.

  5. A pox on both their houses. I don’t know how any politician, especially Harry Reid, could ever pass a temple recommend interview, but there you have it.

  6. Politicians lie because that is the only way to communicate with a populace who engages in wholesale self-deception.

    Romney isn’t lying, he is speaking our language. His entire premise for being elected is built upon deception, a deception we all participate in (with the exception of Ron Paul, rendering him useless in a democracy.)

    But when politicians exercise real power, when a president really as to make a decision that has real impact, he usually makes one honestly, according to the dictates of his conscience and rationality. I believe both Romney and Obama are good, decent men. We corrupt them.

    Apart from dealing with getting elected by idiots, Nixon was honest and decent, one of our greatest presidents, and the one we most deserved.

  7. I listened to Obama’s quote in context. It was essentially Marxist rhetoric. Pure class envy. It was right out of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. He was trying to stir up and incite the proletariat, his base. And he was using the same rhetoric that Marxists used!

    Obama is not just a socialist, the guy is a Marxist. You all should have realized this from the get go with who his family, his mentors and his favorite professors and teachers were.

    LISTEN to the speech, don’t just read it. Note the cadence, We haven’t heard such practiced manipulative cadence in terms of rhetorical manipulation since Jimmy Carter’s day.

  8. But its true what Romnney is saying about Obama’s speech (and that quote). Small businesses DID build roads and bridges with tax dollars invested by them and all of us! Nice spin here to protect the One, but his whole speech is a put-down to ordinary folks who are just trying to make a living. Without the rest of us, the government is nothing. Even with the rest of us the current government is a shell game.

  9. It was Richard Nixon who said, “Sometimes you just have to demagogue it.” And it did it very well.

  10. I reject wholesale the notion that Romney is purposefully taking the Obama quote out of context (indeed, that quote *is* the context of entire philosophy) or that the president was referring to “roads and bridges” as the antecedents of the “that” which businesses supposedly did not build. If so, he would have said that businesses didn’t build “those”.

    In any event, a poor justification for calling someone’s temple worthiness into question. And quite pathetic.

  11. Bruce notes of the study: “He found that people were totally comfortable with politicians of their own party being dishonest to get elected.”

    It’s not about politicians it’s about us. Jettboy and Tom O. have rationalized Romney’s use of proof-texting Obama’s discourse by reading offensive socialist overtones into the discourse themselves, so whatever Romney does to make it sound socialist is actually not lying, but clarifying Obama’s intent, which is to “put down ordinary folks” as Jettboy says.

    Yes, we have the politicians we deserve.

  12. To be fair, Nate, you yourself have said Obama is a socialist, and you praise him for it. It is not a stretch to read class warfare into this speech. It is in the general category of: “the government is more important than the individual, and the individual cannot succeed without government.” It is not dishonest to point out that this is, indeed, Obama’s intent, which he mostly succeeded in masking during the 2008 election. People should make an informed choice, and Obama is helping them make such a choice by being honest about his feeling that business cannot succeed without government.

    As a businessman, I would point out that businesses these days do not succeed mostly because of government. Private toll roads and bridges can be built by the private sector (and are built with private sector funds, which are called “taxes.”). The government mostly exists to feed off of businesses and to “allow” a small space where businesses can succeed if they are well-connected or pay off the right people.

    Neither Romney nor Obama understand how serious the problem is, however, so, no matter who is elected, we will get the politician we deserve.

  13. “Mark N, I suggest we be careful on how we judge people’s worthiness. It may be that Romney’s lies are smaller sins than some sins you commit.”

    No doubt. But there’s a reason they ask the honesty question in the temple recommend interviews. Are the answers to some of those questions less important than the answers to others? I don’t think so.

    “And our Church leaders, while not endorsing anyone, have told us to vote. Not voting was not an option they’ve given us.”

    A non-vote is a vote of no confidence. It’s a vote for “what’s the point?” As Wednesday Addams replies to Pugley’s question at the end of the movie about whether or not the antagonists of the story are dead, a non-vote is a vote for “does it matter?”

    If I can be convinced that voting for Coke or voting for Pepsi is going to make any kind of difference in how things turn out, I may yet show up at the polls. Right now, though, it’s not looking too good. (Of course, strictly speaking, I’m on the permanent absentee voter list, so I don’t even need to show up at the polls to vote; I can just mail it in. I suppose it would be a waste of taxpayer money for me to just throw away the ballot I’ll be receiving in the mail.)

    As for pathetically worrying about Romney’s temple-worthiness, I suppose it’s completely unfair of me to expect that he should be held to a higher standard than Obama, who hasn’t yet made the same kinds of covenants. Shame on me. I guess.

  14. Geoff, you are right to point that out. Obama may ideologically be a socialist.

    However, as a president, Obama is not a socialist, he is a pragmatist. The self-deception going on in the conservative community is that Obama is a radical socialist whose policies are destroying America. The reality is that all of Obama’s policies have been moderate, and some, like his health care mandate, come from conservative think-tanks.

    In Washington, the fight is not about whether we should have a Tea Party America or a Communist America. It’s a pragmatic fight about whether to extend some anemic little tax increase, or make some pathetic spending cut.

    But when you listen to the rhetoric, you get this grandiose moral judo swinging radically from the left to the right.

    The rhetoric is all smoke and mirrors, and the public is completely fooled. We listen to some carefully worded discourse by Obama, and we have deceived ourselves to hear “hope and change” or “radical socialism.” We hear what we want to hear. We believe what we want to believe.

    But realities in Washington are different. It’s not very exciting, but actually, we have a moderate, mixed ideological government with some left-leaning and some right-leaning policy. It actually reflects perfectly the US democratic population, half of whom leans right, and half of whom leans left.

  15. I don’t know if Nate and I would agree on politics but he has written one of the most cogent posts I’ve ever read. “I believe Obama and Romney are both good, decent men. We corrupt them.” I think this statement is a way to cut through rhetoric and get to the core: how do I contribute to the atmosphere of hyper-partisanship? Am I demonizing someone because I don’t agree with them? Am I more interested in having my beliefs stroked than thinking critically? Definitely food for thought.
    It would be a good practice for me to everyday see something good in a candidate I disagree with…for certainly not everything they say or do can be wrong unless I’m so consumed by ideology I’m blinded to the common decency we all share.

    Thank you Nate.

  16. My response was similar to when Romney argued corporations are people (since they are made up of people and the money ultimately goes to people) – well, he’s right on a fairly uncontroversial point (no one really does anything alone and any successful person has lots of other people to thank for it), but my heavens to betsy that’s an awful, awful soundbite.

  17. As seen through this radio report, Romney should get better fact-checkers. Those business owners that he highlights in his latest ad campaign got government assistance. They *didn’t* build that.

  18. Hm, I’m not sure it’s wise to attribute deception and dishonesty to Romney in this case. Many of you may be intelligent enough to know that “that” is a singular pronoun, whereas “them” or “those” would be plural pronouns.

    Obama may now claim that he meant “that” to refer to roads and bridges, but that would be grammatically incorrect. Maybe we’ve discovered the reason Obama won’t release his college transcripts, he doesn’t know how to speak English properly.

    If Obama had come out on day 1, and said, I misspoke, what I meant when I said “that” was “them”, that’d be fine. As it stands though, he’s standing on his high-horse, deceiving the American people about Romney’s timeline at Bain, and accusing Romney of dishonesty.

    Conservatives, that portion of American society to have at least half a brain, can recognize the ambiguity in Obama’s statement. Other’s insist there is no ambiguity. Based on our experience with him, and the rest of the speech, we’ve seen his animosity towards business-persons, and sucessful people. It is not out of character for our observations of Obama.

  19. Who built the roads and bridges if not the businesses and business owners that pay taxes?

    It’s strange to argue that they built themselves… or that a business owner is just a parasite leeching off the road making public.

    So if Pres. Obama wants to argue that you can’t have a business without a road, and you didn’t build the road… well, who paid for it to be built?

    The whole road and bridges bit is a canard of the highest order. You don’t have too many people saying let’s not build or repair roads. But there are a lot of people saying we’re wasting hundreds of millions on other things, including the misuse of infrastructure funds.

  20. Romney didn’t make people think Obama has it out for business owners. Someone else made that happen.

    As someone suggested earlier, watch the video of Obaama’s speech with the sound off. Ask yourself if that is the body language of someone in the act of praising, or castigating.

    It’s a pattern of behavior with Obama. “The private sector is doing fine.” “spread the wealth around.” “there comes a point where you’ve made enough money.” “They should be saying thank you!” and so on.

    Add to that the litany of stories of businesses hounded by DC regulatory agencies (from Gibson guitar to oil and coal companies, outsourcers, offshorers, plumbers)….

  21. I’ve been reading these comments for the last couple of days. I have been rather timid about saying much of anything. But, I would like to point out that lying isn’t only in the words or facts but in the way that they are presented. It is possible to make a statement that is true in such a way that no one will believe it. It is possible to take someone’s words and twist and turn them until they have nothing to do with truth even thought the words might be accurate.

    I was not particularly put off by Romney saying corporations are people because a corporate entity is treated like a person under the law. He wasn’t lying. He was being insensitive by appealing to a small group of people who understood what he meant.

    What % of the tax money anyone pays goes towards paying for roads and bridges? Under the Bush administration the DOT spent all the infrastructure money on a study about how to spend less on roads and bridges. In the meantime the roads and bridges remained unimproved, except for the Lexus lanes on the VA side of the Washington beltway and the metro spur to Dulles Airport. Who promoted those projects and lobbied to get federal $$ to pay for them? A consortium of business men that is who. Not only did they want federal money but they twisted the arms of local governments to pay a larger share of the construction costs. So now the roads and train tracks go where they wanted them to go, not where they are most needed. In the end who will benefit. The new hot lanes will be toll lanes that will be run not by the government but by a private company. The profits from the road will not repay the taxpayers but go into the pockets of private entities.

    Schools funding will be cut. Mental Health care infrastructure will be cut and the holes in the safety net that Mitt is counting on to take care of the poor will be big enough to drive a truck through.

  22. Since the discussion turned toward the poor’s safety net I thought I’d add in a religious perspective which is after the pattern of the Lord.

    Using His own words in revealed revelation, we read, “For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?”

    It’s important to notice the stark distinction between those clothed in rags, an allusion to the poor, and those clothed in robes, an allusion to the rich.

    But along with that, is the notion of righteousness or at least the poor being obedient — “and they serve him obediently”.

    So YvonneS, I sincerely hope that we are able to drive a truck through the saftey net that allows people to buy cigarettes, alochol, strip club visits, etc. with funds geared toward helping the worthy poor. I further do not believe we should be paying for on-going food, etc. to people that buy or have big screen TVs, nice cars, Xbox 360s, etc. etc.

    While I have an acute sense that we ought to esteem our brother as ourselves and do for them what we are doing for ourselves, I am appalled at the notion that somehow the scriptural focus on the “naked” and “hungered” should apply to those who have nice clothes, high tech entertainment, iphones, etc.

    “Hungry” and “Naked” does not mean, “I’m having a hard time buying T-bones this month because I chose to maintain an iphone bill, netflix account, and make a dozen unnecessary trips in my car wasting expensive fuel.

    The safety net that allows, even promotes in some cases, that kind of exacerbation of the problem is worthy of driving holes through. It is not a sufficient justification that because there are truly worthy poor out there that we need to help, we must also continue to enabling tens of thousands (millions?) of lives to be ruined by a government program which encourages and subsidizes excess and waste.

    That kind of safety net is worthy of driving holes through. And who knows if Romney is willing or even politically able to do it.

    /end off topic soapbox rant

  23. Chris, no clue how that happened. Welcome to our software. I agree with your sentiments and have written similar things in more than a dozen posts. Just to use one example, perhaps we can agree that we don’t need 115 federal welfare programs? Perhaps we could pare that down to 40 or 50 — or maybe even 10 — without truly affecting the “safety net.”

    Even a libertarian sympathizer like me agrees that some kind of “safety net” is generally a good thing. We should make sure that nobody is starving. But today, any attempt to touch even one of the 115 federal programs is seen as an abomination by some people, and such a position transforms the “safety net” from a backstop into the primary source of funds for many people, and that is not a “safety net.”

  24. I’d also add in the safety net is an interesting concept, intending to evoke a comparison between a tight rope walker or trapeze artist, who rises high and risks death in order to be successful at performing their stunt.

    The person who chooses to buy cigarettes or chooses to eat out 10+ times a month, or chooses to maintain an iphone bill is not making a risk or experiencing a fall that they need a safety net to protect them.

    They are actively making a choice that they will pay for the things they care about, and you will pay for the things they need to survive.

    In this case, the safety net has actually become a different kind of net. A net which ensnares thousands of souls like a fish swapped up in the net of greed self-gratification used by the adversary. We need to be careful that our safety net isn’t made of flaxen cord.

  25. It is pretty easy to sit in our comfortable homes and go to our jobs every day and then assume we know who the worthy poor are. You will notice that worthy poor are nowhere mentioned in scripture. We are told specifically not to judge because we are all beggars.

    The object of the safety net should not be to keep people from starving it should be to help them get on their feet so they can meet their own needs. It is pretty hard to buy a big screen TV on less than $700.00 a month. It is pretty hard to find a place to live on that amount let alone buy all the things mentioned by Chris. I suspect however that the thousands of fish washed into the net referred to are not really using the safety net at all they are most likely those taking advantage of middle class entitlement programs like the individual programs for children on the autism spectrum, or the one meal a day poor children are provided by their school.

    I’m going to stop now. I did not intent to go so far off topic.

    I do want to add however, that the biggest lie we have heard so far is that hard work, ingenuity and persistence will bring success. The most important element in building something is luck. That is not to say that hard work, ingenuity and persistence are not important but luck cannot be discounted.

  26. YvonneS –

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but the “luck” part doesn’t ring true. Taking a risk at the right time and place sounds more appropriate. The catch is, it’s a risk specifically because you don’t know if its the right time and place.

    An ignorant or jealous person would just say, “ya that’s luck”. But there are tens of millions of risk takers in this world and it’s not just “luck” that describes their success.

  27. Yvonne, I agree with the sentiment of what you are saying about judging the poor.

    Yet, I live in a low-income area of town, and my daughter goes to a Title 1 school. Elementary school. They were bemoaning that their $2 million budget was cut down to $1 million.

    For an elementary school.

    And the same school tried to force my daughter into government-subsidized food by giving her, as a kindergartener, food that I had not authorized, and in fact made very clear that they were not to give her. Their response to my protestation? Sending me over half a dozen government assistance application forms.

    Programs like that have something broken. It isn’t all for nothing, either you support existing programs or you’re a heartless, selfish, judgmental jerk.

  28. And in case you wonder about the math, that kind of a budget means that PER CAPITA, the elementary students EACH get more than three times the amount of money I make in a year for my family.


  29. I would LOVE, just once, to see a left-leaning person say: “yes, we need a safety net, but 115 federal programs is too much, and there are programs that could be consolidated and eliminated. It would be more efficient, and better for the truly needy, if we had fewer programs that concentrated on helping the poor become more self-sufficient.” I’ve been waiting a few decades to hear this from a left-leaning person, but to no avail. Every comment is, “if you cut (or consolidate) *anything* you are hurting the poor,” which nobody can actually believe if we have 115 programs, right? Perhaps today is the day I will get to read that comment. C’mon, lefties, don’t disappoint me!

    (And keep in mind that in most states there are many state programs in addition to the federal programs….).

  30. Geoff B. (36) – Today is that long-awaited day. I’m probably left-leaning by your standards, but I agree some federal welfare programs should be consolidated. If you’d like specifics, I think eliminating home heating oil assistance to finance a (tiny) expansion in the earned income tax credit would be a great way to start.

    To the larger discussion, the electoral silly season seems a consequence of public tastes. I’m often impressed with how much respect and substance fills the committee meetings legislators know few will ever watch.

  31. Bookslinger “I listened to Obama’s quote in context.” So have I. In addition, it is important to think about how his audience heard his speech.

    I think you are right.

  32. Chris: My comment about luck came form Kahneman. I should have quoted it, but I was and still am to lazy to go look it up and give you all the biographical information. He was surprised at the result of his research. He did not say that all those other things are not factors he said that luck is always a factor and a big one.

    SilverRain: You are one of my heroes. I live in a relatively well off county. I still hear complaints in public places about the poor using too much. If it weren’t for title one my daughter with a specific learning disability would have been into a self contained MR class and would have been labeled and stigmatized for life. As it is she holds a master degree and is self employed. If it weren’t for SSI and Medicaid my seriously mentally ill child would not be able to afford the expensive medicines and other treatments that sustain life and sanity. This person would be forever marginalized in our society. If it weren’t for subsidized housing this person would be homeless, in jail or some other institution. At some future time that may change, but it takes a very long time to make enough progress to be truly independent. What you see isn’t all there is.

    Geoff B: I am not informed enough to decide what programs are inefficient and which ones are not. In fact I am not informed enough to know which programs you might think it would help to combine. I might seem left leaning where you live. I am not left leaning where I live.

  33. I love all this talk about politicians. They’re so special. Sen. Wallace Bennett, for example, who ran against Elbert Thomas in 1950, smeared Thomas by accusing him of being a communist sympathizer. It was at the time considered the dirtiest campaign in Utah political history. But all I read about for years was the great job Sen. Bennett did leading the singing in the Chevy Chase Ward. I always wondered if he ever — just once — felt the slightest twinge of guilt over the monstrous lie he used to defeat Sen. Thomas. Then there was Rep. Doug Stringfellow who lied about being an OSS agent in WWII…well, we wont’ go there. Kinda makes Harry Reid look like a saint.

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