Once upon a time, my parents assure me, people assumed that politicians told the truth. Of course, they thought, those politicians might tell those truths that put their policies and records in the most favorable light, rather than pointing out the most troubling aspects of them; but they would not actually lie. When they did, for instance when it became clear that Eisenhower had lied about the U2 incident, people were horrified.
Since then, of course, we have had to get used to the fact that politicians lie. Starting with Lyndon Johnson running as the peace candidate in 1964, and proceeding through Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clinton lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and so on, we have become inured to politicians lying. Worse than that, we reward them for it. I first realized this in 1988. During the runup to the Republican primary in New Hampshire, the dominant issue was taxes. There was a poll taken just before the primary, and it showed that a majority of New Hampshire Republican voters believed that whoever won the Presidency would have to raise taxes. But a majority of those same New Hampshire Republicans voted for George H. W. Bush over Bob Dole because Bush was willing to promise not to raise taxes (the famous "read my lips" line), while Bob Dole was not; and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that some of them voted for Bush because he was willing to say something that both he and they knew was untrue.
While some people seem to think that it's inevitable that politicians lie, it is not. There is nothing about deciding to run for elective office that automatically strips politicians of their principles and renders them incapable of telling the truth. Moreover, there is nothing about being a citizen that forces us to accept this state of affairs. We could, if we wanted to, take the fact that a politician tells a flat-out falsehood as a serious strike against him or her, a consideration that might be outweighed by something even more important, but that was as important as, say, that politician's stand on taxes or the environment. And I think we should. Lying is, of course, usually wrong, whoever does it. But lying by politicians is not just wrong for all the usual reasons; it is wrong because it endangers our democracy.
We, as citizens, are supposed to vote for the candidate whose policies, character, and vision we think is best. In order to make this choice, we need to know what candidates' policies, character, and vision are. If we could take it for granted that they always told us the truth, then this would be fairly straightforward. We could listen to their speeches, decide who we preferred, and vote accordingly. If, on the other hand, we had to assume that they might be lying, then our job as citizens becomes much, much more difficult, especially now, when the media has largely abdicated its responsibility to help us sort these things out.
It is, of course, possible to tell who is lying. I, for instance, often know. But that's because I am the sort of person who actually likes to watch CSPAN panels on natural gas pricing, and read GAO reports on the security of shipping containers. For some reason, most people don't share this taste; even my friends find it somewhat eccentric. Moreover, lots of people don't know the sorts of basic things about policy that they'd need to know in order to sort out truth from falsehood. (I once decided to use the time before my class started to test this, and asked my students a few questions like: why is the federal government more likely to run a deficit when there's a recession, apart from any policies it might put in place to deal with that recession? Most of them couldn't give any answer; the number who got both the part about declining revenues and the part about increased spending on entitlements was vanishingly small. And these were smart, educated kids at a time when balanced budget amendments were being debated.)
If we want to have a functioning democracy, then at least one of two things has to happen. (Probably both.) First, as citizens we need to insist that politicians not say things that are false. When they do this, they undermine our ability to make the kinds of informed choices on which a democracy rests. Moreover, they do this on purpose. If we care about our democracy, we cannot allow this to happen. Second, citizens need to become much more informed than we have been, both because this mitigates the damage done by lies and because it is the only way that we can know who is lying to us and hold them accountable. Anyone who is reading this blog has probably already accepted this responsibility; but, in my view, we need to convince other people to do so as well, and also offer to serve as a resource for those of our friends who do not particularly want to spend their afternoons curled up with the latest report from the Congressional Budget Office.
Democracies do not run themselves, and having a functioning democracy is not just a matter of periodically holding elections. It requires a lot, both from politicians and from citizens. From politicians it requires a willingness to state their views clearly and honestly, and to let us accept or reject them. From us, however, it requires the willingness to inform ourselves enough to make an informed choice, and to help one another to do this; and it also requires that we not reward candidates who, by lying to us, either about their own views or about their opponents, show their contempt not just for us, but for democracy itself. That politicians lie is not something we should ever decide we just have to learn to live with, or accept as inevitable, if we want to live up to our responsibilities as citizens.
Since this is a purely non-partisan point, I will not say what prompted this little sermon ;)