People lie because lying works. There was that seminal 1979 book on the matter – Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life – by the formidable Sissela Bok – the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners and married to the then-president of Harvard. It seems smart people lie too, all the time, and she admits that. But everyone does, and maybe when you’re smart and successful you should never do such a bad thing, but in her book, Bok explains that it’s not as simple as deciding lying is bad and deciding you will always tell the truth. Yes, everyone says that lying is bad, but the whole notion is nonsense. Little white lies and meaningless pleasantries make social life, and society itself, possible – and of course they make marriage possible. (No dear, that dress does not make you look fat.) And there are big awful lies one sometimes must tell to survive in this nasty world. Gay folks used to have to tell those. Some still do. In that case the lie can be a matter of survival – a tactical decision made in order to keep your job, or save your life. And there is everything in between those extremes, along with the usual self-serving often absurd purposeful lies, told to get what you want and couldn’t otherwise get. Those lies are a problem, and that may be the only category of lying that is actually morally reprehensible. But there may be an exception there too. If you tell those sorts of lies over and over, so often that you eventually come to think that what you’re saying is actually true, are you actually lying? The intention to deceive disappears if you’ve actually come to believe what once were self-serving manipulative tactical fibs. You cease being a moral monster. Now you mean well. You’ve just become stupid instead. One thinks of George Bush – you may still be a moral monster, but at least you’re not lying, simply because now you really don’t think you are.
These things get complicated, and few even think about such matters. But now and then there’s that rare day when everyone in public life spends the day doing what they have been doing all along, surprising no one. Politicians keep saying what they’ve been saying, with only slight variations, and on the cable news shows you get “perspective” pieces and “in-depth analysis” of the arcane details of this issue or that – and everyone switches over to the Food Network for a tour of the nation’s best hamburger joints or what’s new with lemon tarts. No one resigns, there are no primaries to win or lose, no one is caught torturing puppies or messing around with altar boys or girl scouts, and thus pundits have no grist for the mill, so to speak.
But not to worry – politicians lie – they always do – and you can talk about that. It’s kind of back-to-Bok time, a chance to talk about meta-politics, as just as metaphysics is one step above the physical world, so meta-politics is one step above what Newt said about what Mitt said about Rick, who said something or other about Obama that Rush liked, except that no one likes Rush now. You can follow all that stuff, or you can move a level of abstraction higher. What is really going on here? What is this nonsense all about?
Those are just the right questions for a slow news day, and Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine has a bit of meta-politics for you, which could lead you to Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Chait offers this Bok-like item, Mitt Romney Lies a Lot, But He’s Not a Liar:
Psychologists have a concept called “the fundamental attribution error.” Essentially it means that people tend to view their own behavior as a result of circumstances, while viewing others’ behavior as a reflection of their inherent traits. So, for instance, if we see another car making a driving mistake, we think, “that driver is an idiot,” while if we make a mistake ourselves we think we were distracted or sleepy.
This is a useful prism through which to understand Mitt Romney’s propensity to lie.
So, let’s see. Romney seems to lie a lot, but we really ought to cut Romney some slack, because we might be making a fundamental attribution error:
He says lots of things that are obviously false and that he clearly knows to be false – particularly, but not exclusively, about his own record. But it’s not clear that this tells us anything about Romney’s character. Lying is what politicians do when the truth stands between them and their goals. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role of character here. Some politicians are more comfortable lying than are others. But circumstance plays a powerful role.
And here is what Chait suggests are the circumstances we should consider:
It is Romney’s bad luck that fate has dictated his only path to the presidency lies in being a huge liar. First, he was a Republican running in a heavily Democratic state, which forced him to shade his abortion views rightward, and present himself generally as moderate to progressive, ideologically. After having had to shade his views as far left as he could get away with to win in Massachusetts, he had to obtain the Republican nomination in 2008, making himself acceptable to a dramatically more conservative electorate. And then, four years later, he has had to make himself acceptable to a Republican electorate that has moved further right still.
You can get part of the way there by undergoing a deeply felt ideological conversion on key issues. But you can’t get all the way there such a way. Lying is inevitably going to be part of the process.
But Chait goes on to argue that Romney’s problem is that every time he had to reposition himself he had to do that in “a spotlight” – he had to explain his views at length, as he’s been running for things for so long, and in far too many places:
His views on abortion in Massachusetts and health care in the Republican primary were a novelty and a source of constant suspicions that he had to allay with endless reassurances. Those reassurances have formed an extensive public record that he is forced to deny, revise, and cover up.
But he was trapped:
Now, if Romney really couldn’t stand to be dishonest, he had options. He could have just decided the ideological dissonance required to run as a Republican in Massachusetts, or as that Massachusetts Republican in a national Republican primary, was more than he could bear.
But then he wouldn’t be a politician, would he? It’s all about compromises, and tactical lying, which is, of course, only tactical:
There’s no reason to believe that Romney is especially dishonest in his core – that he has any special propensity to lie to his friends or neighbors or clients. He wanted a political career, and once he made that decision, he had only two choices: massive dishonesty or certain defeat.
This is meta-politics, the abstraction of political theory, but Paul Waldman at American Prospect is having none of it:
There are two problems here. The first is that Romney lies about President Obama as often as he lies about himself. It’s just that when he does the former, he does it with actual squirming (if he’s sitting down), the phoniest smile you’ve ever seen, and panic in his eyes, so it’s really obvious. The second problem is that Chait’s distinction applies to pretty much every political liar in history. There’s always a reason why a politician lies. The biggest lies come when they get caught doing something they shouldn’t have (Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran-Contra, Clinton with Monica Lewinsky). They might be telling themselves, “Taking responsibility is all well and good, but it’s better for the country if I get out of this scandal and continue with my duties.”
In fact, saving one’s own skin, whether from scandal or the displeasure of the party base, is a near-universal motivation for politicians’ lies.
But this may be a special case:
In Romney’s case, what he got caught doing wasn’t trading arms for hostages or getting serviced by a young intern, but supporting abortion rights and health care reform, which to the people whose votes he’s now seeking are sins even more deplorable. I’d argue that Romney’s lies about Obama… are the worse ones, because it wasn’t like some reporter backed him into a corner and he was grasping at straws to keep primary voters from hating him. He could make a critique of Obama that’s just as persuasive without making things up, but he chooses not to, fairly regularly.
And here’s where it gets really abstract:
So is there a real meaningful difference between a politician who’s a liar, and a politician who tells many lies? No – or, at least, none that will matter to us as citizens. Experience tells us that a guy who lies as a candidate will not only tend to lie just as much as a president, but will probably lie about the same kinds of things. If he’s lying on the campaign trail about whether he has cheated on his wife, it’s a good bet he’ll end up telling us more lies about future cheating. If he’s lying on the campaign trail about what his tax plan contains, it’s a good bet he’ll end up lying to us about his tax plan when he tries to pass it, as George W. Bush did.
So the really important thing to watch out for is the guy who tells lies about policy – which would seem to apply fairly well to Mitt Romney, whatever happens to lie deep within his heart.
And what specifically does Romney lie about? See Steve Benen with Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity, Vol. X – the links to Volumes I through IX are at the bottom of the page. This is what Mitt says about Obama, and others, with links to the actual facts of the matter. The first three items in Volume X are these:
Romney told voters in Mississippi this week, “Don’t forget by the way that this President, how many months ago was it, 37 months ago, told us that if he could borrow $787 billion, almost $1 trillion, he would keep unemployment below 8 percent.” Putting aside the fact that $787 billion is not “almost $1 trillion,” the “below 8 percent” canard just isn’t true.
Romney also told Mississippi Republicans about the president, “He was going to cut the budget deficit in half. He’s doubled it.” This is one of Romney’s favorite lines, but it’s simply absurd on its face — he’s either lying or he’s bad at arithmetic. When Obama took office, the deficit was about $1.3 trillion. Last year, it was $1.29 trillion. This year, it’s on track to be about $1.1 trillion. Does Romney not know what “double” means? (Even if we believe Romney is confusing the words “deficit” and “debt,” it’s still wrong. The only modern presidents to double the debt on their watch were Reagan and George W. Bush. Obama inherited a $10 trillion debt, and it’s nowhere near $20 trillion.)
Going after Rick Santorum this week, Romney said, “This is the guy that voted to fund Planned Parenthood.” This is wildly dishonest. Not only did Romney fund Planned Parenthood as governor, but during his Senate campaign, Romney attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser (his wife even dropped off a $150 check).
These go on and on. But people lie because lying works. Benen would like to change that, but he’s not getting much help, and he cites MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell explaining this to his viewers:
The political media have a problem. It’s a problem the press has always had and has never solved. When should they call a lie a lie? When a candidate like Mitt Romney, who lies much more than most candidates, says something that is utterly false, the press will say, it’s “not accurate.” They might even use the word “false.” They might use the word “untrue,” but they will never, ever use the word “lie.” And that is what lying politicians like Mitt Romney count on every time they try to get away with one of their ridiculous lies… In the silly rules of politics and political coverage, the word “lie” just can’t seem to find its place.
Well, the proper way to practice objective journalism, or just nonpartisan journalism, is a difficult issue, much discussed. But what do you do about politicians who tell egregious and absurd lies – big whoppers – over and over and over again? It is frustrating. But maybe all that’s left to do is discuss the theory of lying – and vote for the other guy.