A Brief Reflection on Lying Politicians

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It's impossible to be elected president without misrepresenting the truth. Is it hurting America when we too readily concede as much?

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Mitt Romney's unusually frequent flip-flops, shameless misrepresentations of the truth, and brazen pandering has caused some pundits to marvel at how dishonorable he is. "How did this happen?" Scott Galupo asks. "How did we come to this pass, where a man like Mitt Romney -- whose candidacy represents a breathtakingly cynical, borderline nihilistic pursuit of power on behalf of a tiny sliver of the population -- sits within striking distance of the highest office in the land?"

I won't defend the Republican nominee. But I am a bit confused by all the folks who aren't as disgusted by President Obama's performance on these metrics. This is, after all, a man who misrepresented his core to the electorate in 2008, constantly asserting that systemic reform would be his first priority in Washington, D.C., only to arrive in the White House and work within the system. The incumbent also accepted huge amounts of cash from Wall Street, staffed his administration with insiders from big finance, continued to bail out their industry, and failed to hold it accountable for its role in the financial crash. Meanwhile he shamelessly reversed himself on numerous national security matters, breaking explicit campaign promises and pursuing policies that he once denounced as immoral, illegal, and harmful to the United States of America. For those voting Republican or Democrat this November the choice is between two phonies.

So how did we get here?

The same way that Mike Campbell of The Sun Also Rises fame went broke: "gradually, and then suddenly." Politicians have always lied because they've always had powerful incentives to do so. Over time, some level of mendacity became an expected part of the process; for American voters, it only seemed pragmatic to accept some lies from candidates, else who would there be to support? Only particularly egregious mendacity was penalized under the evolving norm. But "particularly egregious" relative to what? For politicians, the incentive to lie just a bit more always existed, and so the expected level of lies kept getting ratcheted up to new levels.

It's now easier than ever to get elected despite telling brazen lies. But on some level Americans are aware of what's gone on, and so they accord decreasing amounts of respect to elected leaders. The conventional wisdom is that in order to be a successful politician these days, you've got to gradually compromise many of your core principles and perhaps your integrity.

Ask yourself this question: Can anyone become president without lying? Without misrepresenting their opponent? Without using people as a means to an end? I don't think anyone can. And I have no idea how a nation would go about reversing the ratchet effect successfully. I'll be voting for a third party this November, but I don't really expect it to make any difference.

Most Americans have grown so used to mendacity that it's taken for granted. I wonder if, despite its inevitability, we'd be better off if we raged against betrayals of what we believe is right a bit more.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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