Stanley on political dishonesty

Jason Stanley has a really interesting piece in the NY Times on political dishonesty. He argues that public distrust of politicians is so strong that “it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere. The expectation is that any statement made either by a politician or by a media outlet is a false ideological distortion. As a result, no one blames politicians for making false statements or statements that obviously contradict that politician’s beliefs.”

He moves on to make a very striking suggestion:

An assertion is an attempt to transfer one’s knowledge to one’s audience. It is clearly not true that Obama is seeking to undermine work requirements on welfare. Everyone either knows that it’s not true or can easily find it out by reading what independent fact checkers have said in easily available articles on the Internet. Furthermore, the Romney campaign knows this. So the Romney campaign is not intending to make an assertion. Given this, it’s unfair to accuse the campaign of lying. As I have argued before, it may not be possible to assert or lie anymore in a presidential campaign.

While I think this is really interesting and provocative, I don’t find myself in agreement. Some reasons:

1. We don’t treat the political arena in the way that we would if we thought politicians really weren’t in the business of making assertions. When politicians are fact-checked and their lies are pointed out, this isn’t treated as an error in the way that it would be if someone fact-checked an obviously fictional movie.

2. Political lies DO still cause widespread outrage. In fact, the political lies of the right cause outrage on the left. And the political lies of the left cause outrage on the right. Our reactions manifest a partisanship in terms of which lies we care about (or even acknowledge as lies). But for pretty much everyone paying attention to politics, there are some lies that they notice and care about. (And it’s clearly not true that NO ONE blames politicians for their lies. A quick glance at Jender-Mom’s FB updates during the Republican convention is enough to make that clear!)

A key point in Stanley’s argument is that the people cheering Ryan’s speech surely knew he was making speaking falsehoods, but they applauded nonetheless. But there are two possible explanations of this which Stanley doesn’t consider: that they were in fact quite ignorant, or that they enjoyed their guy’s lies. Personally, it seems to me the first is really quite likely given the many other falsehoods the Republican audience believes (e.g. about global warming).

Another key point for Stanley is the claim that the Romney campaign doesn’t mean their intended audience to believe what they’re saying. But I’m also unconvinced of this. Their main intended audience is surely undecided voters. And my impression is that undecided voters are also pretty poorly informed voters (how many people do you know who really follow politics and haven’t made up their minds?). There’s no reason to suppose these people will know that Ryan was lying.

So, I’m not sure I agree. But I am finding it really useful to think through this stuff.

26 thoughts on “Stanley on political dishonesty

  1. On the assertion/not-an-assertion issue, I think there might be something else going on. With the welfare requirement issue in particular, I think Stanley is completely wrong that people know it’s not true. They don’t. They also can’t find out all that easily, because there are plenty of right-wing websites out there forming an echo chamber.

    The statement about welfare is a clear example of race-baiting. It’s aimed at disaffected working-class white voters who have attitudes about “people on welfare” lurking in the back of their mind – attitudes of resentment or dislike toward other people who are supposedly “taking our jobs” or “leeching” on “our taxes.” Statements like the ones on welfare have the effect of lending the authority of the politician (whether it’s Romney, Ryan, or Santorum – all of whom have repeated the claim) to the attitude in order to validate it. It’s very similar to the case of Donald Trump droning on about the birther nonsense. By repeating the claim, the [politician/famous person/etc.] lends his authority to the claim, thus validating whatever ugly attitudes other people hold.

  2. If I quote something that I read somewhere and treat it as a fact, I will end up lying. This is what most of us do. We work based on other’s research and opinions, and, through “putting it in our own words” generally distort the truth even further. Read an attention-grabbing headline and you see one thing – read the actual article, and you often find a different “truth”. Read a few other articles from different sources, and yet other different “truths” often emerge. Even when you do an excellent job of research of the primary sources of information, you may not get the real truth. It is not that there isn’t truth, rather, it is always interpreted based on your world-view and experience.

    Sometimes we (and politicians) do not necessarily choose to lie, but we choose the sources from which we get our “truth”. If you listened to network coverage of the Republican convention, you got a spun version of it, and missed some speakers that helped illuminate the character of the candidate. These were men and women who knew the character of the man spanning many years, and were not polished speakers. While still imperfect, they provided a more real but still imperfect picture of what we will be getting for our vote than any talking head could help us understand.

    If you choose to believe and tell others what your favorite commentator says, you are doing the same thing with truth that politicians often do. Truth becomes “truth” – some approximation of the real thing, which in absolute terms is a lie.

  3. but, if the romney supporters are simply ignorant, isn’t stanley going to reply that ‘yes, and they don’t care whether they are, because they don’t care whether what he says is true: that they willingly remain in ignorance is evidence that they don’t care’?

    i took stanley to be saying that what the romney camp are trying to do is not to make assertions about, eg, welfare; but instead to show attitudes about, eg, race. and what voters care about is what attitudes are displayed, rather than the truth of what is said. surely obama supporters are going to be angered by utterances that show yicky attitudes about race, even if lying, per se, is either not happening, or is not a concern to them. –that is, wouldn’t stanley say that jender-mom is reacting to romney/ryan displaying bigotry, rather than _lying_. (imagine a case where obama campaign say untrue things that make romney look like he’s crapping on the disadvantaged. (as if they would need untruths…) jender-mom might well gloss over the fact that the claim (or ‘claim’) is untrue, and be satisfied that ‘yes, it is wrong to crap on the disadvantaged, and i want a president who shares that attitude with me.’)

    i dunno, i think it’s not obvious he’s off the mark. …but also, i think the existence of armies of fact-checkers is a problem for his account. fact-checkers kind of make it seem like there’s caring about lying going on.

  4. Thank you, ELP (#3)! That’s basically what I was trying to say (and accidentally ended up agreeing more with Stanley’s analysis of the statements than I had intended). The existence of fact-checkers basically undermines Stanley’s point that people know or could easily find out the truth. Part of what’s going on is that the audience these claims reach is an audience that doesn’t really follow political discourse and thus doesn’t really know much about whether the claims are true or false. Fact-checking, and pointing out how these claims are lies, is an attempt to put them in that position.

  5. THO, stanley could respond, i suppose, by saying that the aims/concerns of people who fact-check are simply not representative of those of the general public. and actually, that doesn’t seem too wild a claim. surely most people *don’t*, in the end, give much of a toss, right? otherwise they would keep themselves informed.

  6. Here’s an analogy that may be illuminating: Politicians are like players in a foul-driven game culture where it’s someone else’s job to be referee, and they themselves are freed up to figure out what they can get away with rather than taking responsibility for their own behavior. An “enforcer” in hockey is cheered on for his [sic] limitless escalation of violence, just as a political player is cheered on for the brazen confidence with which provocative claims are mashed up into an irresponsible soup. The disanalogy, of course, is that in politics there’s no agreement on who counts as referee… The analogy, alas, lies in which role gets attention and esteem. (How many of us know the names of sports referees?)

  7. I know people who believe the work requirements for welfare lie. They heard it on Fox News and in Romney ads, and they don’t possess the critical thinking skill to question it. Or they choose to believe because it reinforces their beliefs. They are not seeking truth; they are seeking validation.

  8. The recent Herman Cain interview on the Daily Show (especially the extended part) touches on some of these issues.
    Here a link: (sorry if it’s only viewable in the US; couldn’t find it on youtube):—herman-cain-extended-interview-pt–3

    –Stewart and Cain are disagreeing about the facts of Obama’s changes to the welfare to work program.
    –At one point, Stewart looks off stage and says something like, “Does no one know? Am I wrong?”
    –Eventually someone hands him a phone with a fact-checking article pulled up.
    –Cain eventually apologizes for being wrong.
    –They announce that Cain will be going on a “Truth Tour” across the US. (I think this was a serious endorsement.)

  9. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything Stanley says, but it’s misleading to present this problem in the Romney/Ryan context; I expect the fact checks to come out similarly with regards to Obama/Biden at the Democratic convention. (Maybe this won’t be true, we’ll see.) So I just wish he would have been bipartisan critical instead of the usual anti-Republican philosopher.

  10. If reality does have a liberal bias, this might explain Stanley’s lack of bipartisan criticism. After all, it was Karl Rove who proudly claimed for his side that “when we act, we [try to] create our own reality.” Stanley seems to have had in mind the especially egregious nature of certain political lies — which is not misleading about the fact that both parties lie or distort.

  11. But the problem is that this happens with most if not all national politicians. The distortions and exaggerations clearly abound on both sides of the aisle. Candidates, handlers, and others each are guilty – some more intentionally than others.

  12. bgridley, but I think we are entering an era of whoppers that completely depart from reality and which serve no purpose other than the “blacken” reputations. And actually, I think there is an element of solid racism in what’s going on; a lot of republicans just cannot stand the idea of an African American in the white house, and it doesn’t matter what bad things you say about him, you can get away with it if its going to get rid of him. I think the convention was a lot like a lynch mob.

    Of course, in Texas we’re way past what went on at the convention. People in Lubbock, TX, are being urged by the mayor (or former mayor or some such) to stockpile weapons to fight the UN troops that Obama is planning to use to do something to Texas. (As though anyone in their right minds would want to takeover the Texas panhandle.) Obama just ain’t an American.

    It is wonderful that the press has reacted by calling them out. And if you read the whoppers (see the link in my previous comment) I think it is rash to say the same degree will go on the in Democratic convention.

  13. Time for a philosophy PAC ad; cue the menacing music:

    Seems ironic that a party which prides itself on moral absolutes as bedrock values engages in political discourse which reflects a form of emotivist anything-goes-as-long-as-the-“right”-attitudes-are-achieved strategy. Or perhaps this is a teleological suspension of the ethical in a Kierkegaardian defense of faith in the absolute. Call Paul Ryan and tell him he’s behaving like a subjectivist or existentialist and we need moral facts in politics.

  14. The Democrats lie all the time.

    Are they telling the truth about what’s happening in Syria or the role of the U.S. in backing the Syrian opposition?

    Are they honest about the situation of the Palestinians?

    What will they do with Julian Assange if they get their hands on him?

    Do they speak frankly about the drones?

    What’s going on with torture in Guantánamo?

    How about the killing of Osama Bin Laden? Was Obama honest about that?

    I don’t trust either the Republicans or the Democrats, but Republican lies tend to be more childish.

  15. I read and appreciated Stanley’s piece; it’s genuinely thought-provoking (as this discussion shows). However, I do not want to let politicians hide behind the ‘I’m not really making assertions’ curtain anymore than I want them to hide behnd the tu quoque curtain.

    It might be true that there are many ignorant citizens who are content with their ignorance or just want validation. It is certainly true that we are all prone to confirmation bias. But a democracy in which citizens accept the idea that all politicians lie/dissemble all the time is doomed. And its being doomed is as much a function of a failure of citizenship as of political posing.

  16. Charles Blow in today’s NY times:

    “Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher looked at the fact-checking site PolitiFact’s tallies on Aug. 10 and found that:

    “Mitt Romney’s statements have been judged Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire 46 percent of the time, versus only 29 percent for President Obama. In the Pants on Fire category alone, Romney is more than four times as likely to suffer trouser immolation than the president. Nearly 1 in 10 statements by Romney earned flaming slacks, versus 1 out of every 50 for Obama.”

    On Friday, PolitiFact still had Romney’s statements as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire 42 percent of the time, compared with 27 percent of the time for Obama.

    Propaganda is one thing; prevarication is another.

    There is some degree of mythmaking and truth-stretching in every campaign, but the extent to which Republicans have embraced ignobility in this campaign is astounding. They have used their convention podium to unleash a whole lot of half-truths, so many that fact-checkers have been working overtime. But trying to chase down every lie is like trying to catch every bug in a log. It’s almost impossible.”

  17. Dear Jender,

    Thanks for those comments – they are very useful for me to think about. Let me see if I get the main points. You agree that the practice of lying requires the belief on the part of the liar that there is at least a possibility
    that she will be taken as sincere. What you contest are some of the empirical claims I make in my piece. The first claim I made was that Romney and Ryan don’t think their audience thinks they are sincere. So
    they are not lying. The second claim I made was somewhat bolder.It was that people don’t treat them as lies – i.e. you can see the practice is not happening because the consequences are no longer there. It is these empirical claims that are the subject of your critique.

    First, on fact-checking. It is true the practice still exists. But I don’t think it will survive this presidential campaign – and the Romney campaign is betting on it (as Romney’s campaign pollster has said, “we’re not going to let our campaign be run by fact checkers). As I would have predicted, the process of fact-checking is now politicized – see this article:

    Furthermore the Repubs have their own alternative world of fact checkers:

    So even if you are right that a practice of fact-checking existed a few days ago as a non-ideological non-partisan method of truth-checking, it’s not clear it survived the Republican convention.

    You are right that we still treat politician’s claims differently than claims made in a fictional movie. Nothing I’ve said so far in my three pieces about political speech explains this. This is an interesting point, and I need to think about it longer. My “first pass” response is as follows. Fictional movies are trying to do something communicatively different than political speech. Political speech is supposed to provide a code that the speaker shares the intended audience’s ideology. That’s not what is going on in fictional speech. As a first pass, this is the avenue I’d pursue to explain the disanalogy that you correctly bring out.

    Ok, I’ll post this and move to the next point.

  18. Jender,

    Ok, your second point is that political lies still do cause outrage. I would question, however, whether the outrage concerns the false statements, or the underlying ideology that they are using the false statements to convey. I do not disagree with your claim that certain right-wing audiences are ill-informed, and hence have false beliefs. As I say in my article, many Americans think agree with the false claim that blacks are lazy. I say that Romney has used the new political environment to communicate that he too shares this false belief. It’s the ideology that is constituted by such beliefs – which include lots of misinformation (as I argue) about connections between poverty and race – that should properly provoke outrage. And I think that’s the source of much of our outrage. Republican voters do not care whether Obama is ‘really’ eliminating work requirements on welfare. They just want to see that Romney shares their false beliefs about race. I think a lot of the source of the outrage on the left is that Romney is conveying that he agrees with these false beliefs, that could only survive among ill-informed voters.

  19. So of course I don’t deny that the intended audience has lots of crazy false beliefs, akin to non-belief in global warming. I would be denial of global warming to be one of the false beliefs that constitutes the ideology, like “poor people are black.” The specific falsehoods that Ryan/Romney use to convey that they share this ideology – they are easily to be false, and anyway the intended audience doesn’t care about ’em. They just care that Romney/Ryan share their ideology (which I assume is a set of false beliefs – or maybe as Langton has argued non-belief like states as well – that is supported at least in part by ignorance, or at least a large body of misinformation).

  20. Hi Jason, lots to think about. (And lots of childcare to do, hence brevity!) You write: “You agree that the practice of lying requires the belief on the part of the liar that there is at least a possibility
    that she will be taken as sincere.” I don’t, actually. I’ve been convinced by the work of Carston, Sorenson and Fallis that bald-faced lies are actually lies. I’d go with something like Carston’s idea that the utterance needs to be made in a context that the speaker takes to be a warranting context. But I think your argument still challenges the idea that they’re lying on this view, by challenging the claim that the political arena provides a warranting context.

    I do agree that the ideology conveyed is often more important (to both speaker and audience) that the truth of what is said, or even implicated. And I think this is an important point to make. But where I part company is that I don’t think this makes the context cease to be a warranting context. (I also think, using your preferred requirement, that the speaker thinks there’s a good chance she’ll be believed.)

    A further (small) worry I meant to mention is that there will be differences in acceptability between kinds of lies in the political context. Even if the convention audience doesn’t care about the ideology/dogwhistle lies, they’d care a lot about e.g. a false commitment to pursue their own political goals. (‘Read my lips: no new taxes.”) They’d probably also care about trivial stuff like a broken promise to give each delegate a hat. Or strange lies. E.g. if the speaker lied about the weather, or how many brothers they have, people would care.

  21. Hey Jender – that is super-helpful. I have been using a stronger premise about lying than I needed to make. Yes, you are right that I think the political context is no longer a warranting context. And you are right that the evidence I’ve given for this is that these are cases in which communication of shared ideology -e.g. certain false beliefs – is (I would say) vastly more important than getting to accept the truth of what is said. Perhaps this doesn’t entail that the context is no longer a warranting context. It will all turn on what one’s account of a warranting context is, and that’s something that needs further thought about by us all. I will look again at Carston’s account.

    Your further point is right. For example, consider the recent debate about Paul Ryan lying about his marathon time. As many people have been pointing out over facebook, it looks like this matters more than Paul Ryan’s false statements about Medicare. The view I have I think explains why people are much more upset about Paul Ryan lying about his marathon time – that seems like a (really weird) genuine lie, rather than whatever he did (which is not considered a lie) in his convention speech.

  22. But doesn’t the Ryan thing call for a slight refinement? It’s not that utterances in political contexts can’t be lies, it’s that *some* utterances (the ideological ones?) can’t.

    (This isn’t, by the way, a move to agreeing. I still think the others are lies, though also that we only sometimes care about lies. And given how often we lie according to psychologists it would make sense that we’d only care about some lies. The problem on my view is that many people are failing to care about lies tat they should care about.)

  23. Jason– just remembered a nice bit of evidence in favour of your view (if true). I seem to recall that in the US, truth in advertising laws don’t apply to political advertisements.

  24. Jender, I’m less sure the exemption from the law supports Jason’s view. The reasons given for the law make the difference: (1) free speech- the voters should hear and judge, not some courts; (2) prosecution can’t be done quickly enough; the election will typically b over before the case is settled

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