A conversation worth having, the day before the election
By Tim Ward
Adapted from Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics, by Tim Ward and Gleb Tsipursky
Do you feel angry and disgusted when politicians lie, even those whose policies and ideology you otherwise support? Do you intuitively recognize the danger of lies in politics? Do you ever wonder why many of your fellow citizens give such politicians a pass, ignoring their deceit?
I hope you answered “yes” to these questions: Ido too. Some people care about the truth first and foremost, regardless of their personal values — liberal, conservative, or centrist. However, unfortunately, those passionate about the truth tend to be outliers, as illustrated by Jonathan Haidt, in his 2012 The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. He describes extensive research that shows what values are most prized by mainstream liberals (such as justice, fairness, and equality), and conservatives (including purity, safety, and security). Truth is not among the top values for either group. This helps explain why so many do not intuitively recognize the harm done by deception to democratic institutions, whether in the US or around the globe. People put their ideological beliefs first, and then interpret reality through these lenses, as described in Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — -How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Moreover, most people resonate more with appeals to emotions rather than facts, as shown by research such as in the 2000 Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts.
How do we communicate convincingly the dangers of post-truth political tactics to people who do not have an intuitive concern about truth in politics? Just wagging a finger and calling out such lies, as many intellectuals and public commentators have done in the past and are currently doing, clearly has not worked to prevent such deception. While it is necessary to highlight political deceptions, we also need to demonstrate clearly why such lies are harmful to the long-term interests of our country and our political institutions. We need to show people why they should care — deeply and viscerally — about truth in politics, for the sake of their own political and personal goals.
In our book, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics, we identify three dangers of deception for democratic decision-making:
To help convince people to care about deception in politics, you need to demonstrate to them the danger of falsehoods in politics when making decisions in the political sphere. To make a wise decision, we need to know the relevant facts on the ground. To make a decision about any political policy, a reasonable citizen requires the facts about the impact of that policy on our society, with a list of costs and benefits in material and human terms. But politicians can be motivated to ignore or distort information based on their ideology.
Here are two well-known, real examples of ideologically-informed deception: 1. Pro Brexit politicians claimed in 2016 that leaving the EU would “give the National Health Service the £350 million the EU takes every week.” This claim was admitted to be false by those leaders after UK voted to leave the EU, though it lingered on in social media. 2. The Trump administration’s claims in early 2019 that “there’s a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” a crisis that could only be resolved by building a multibillion-dollar border wall. There were too many lies to count that came from the administration during the winter of 2019. Most recently,in Sept 2020 a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower complaint stated DHS gave false information to Congress in the winter of 2019 about the numbers of suspected terrorists crossing the southern border. That allegation mirrors the findings of an NBC News report from January 2019, which determined that the Trump administration was misrepresenting the data on suspected terrorists crossing the southern border, claiming thousands when in fact there were almost none.
Deception and Corruption
Corruption, a natural bedfellow of political deception, is another negative outcome of post-truth politics. In a post-truth political situation, politicians win office by competing for who tells the best lie. If voters don’t mind or don’t notice the lies, politicians have no incentive to represent the actual concerns of the citizenry once elected, including concerns for how tax dollars are spent or for government dealings with business. Failing to condemn political deception thus leads to a scenario where politicians can take bribes right and left for giving favorable contracts to businesses, and divert our tax dollars into their pockets. After all, without the truth about the influence of money in politics, citizens cannot evaluate who is corrupt. They thus cannot use their votes to address the biggest fear of US citizens. According to the 2016 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, corruption rests at the top with 60.6%, above terrorist attacks at 41% and even above not having enough money for the future at 39.9%.
Let’s consider how corruption and deception play out in a hypothetical example. Greedy Garry has been a senator for 12 years and is running for re-election. Serving on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, he has been cutting undercover deals right and left with energy businesses. For instance, Garry enabled a solar power company to get a huge tax credit of 7 million dollars in exchange for opening a plant in his state and transferring $500,000 to a Cayman Islands bank account under his wife’s name. He ensured that his friend won a federal contract to build an oil pipeline in his state, despite his friend’s bid being far from the cheapest — and next year, his friend bought him a $100,000 yacht for his birthday, despite not having given Garry birthday presents previously.
When the newspapers got wind of Greedy Garry’s activities and published stories about them, Garry denied the allegations with blatant lies. While newspapers presented the objective facts, Garry went for emotions. He claimed the deals were “real winners for the state (vagueness), that he worked hard every day to provide jobs for the people of his state, because the people’s welfare was all he cared about (lying by omission about his payoff). He instead accused the papers of trying to ruin the livelihood of those workers who now worked in the solar power plant and on the oil pipeline (gaslighting). He cherry-picked stories of previously unemployed mothers who got jobs and could support their families thanks to his deals. His winning campaign ad featured a mother and her crying girl ripping apart a newspaper whose headline blasted Greedy Garry.
Given our recent turn toward post-truth politics, we can expect more and more Greedy Garys at all levels of our political system. Even worse, other politicians may look at the successes of Greedy Gary, and conclude they might as well adopt his strategies of lying and accepting bribes, because they work and he gets reelected anyway.
Deception and Authoritarianism
Most dangerous of all, post-truth politics paves the path for authoritarianism. Just as successful appeals to emotions over facts can destroy checks and balances on political corruption, if politicians can win by lying, they can use lies to gain power and hold it indefinitely.
Here’s another hypothetical example: Power-hungry Patty has been elected US President four years ago, and is running for re-election. Her original election was mired in controversy. A couple of weeks prior to the election, when polls showed Patty losing, she called the election rigged, and riled up her supporters for demonstrations leading up to the election. Patty ended up winning the election through a slim victory in the Electoral College, while losing the popular vote by nearly 2 million votes. She blamed her loss on millions of illegal votes cast for her opponent, and launched an investigation into voter fraud, which didn’t turn up any evidence of fraud, but received wide press coverage. Most of her supporters ended up believing that Patty indeed won the popular vote, but that the judicial system was rigged against her.
Patty also appointed an Attorney General, Legal Larry, well-known for aggressive voter suppression tactics. Along with Patty, Larry promoted the myth of widespread voter fraud in US elections, especially in Patty’s election to the Presidency. This myth is common in US politics despite having no evidence behind it. In fact, extensive evidence from many studies of US elections shows minimal voter fraud, as seen in a thorough meta-analysis in a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Patty, Larry, and other members of Patty’s post-truth administration ignored the reality for the sake of promoting their political agenda. When newspapers and experts, along with members of Patty’s own party, called out Patty for her lies about the election, Patty ignored or denounced them. Many of Patty’s supporters who did not care about the truth trusted Patty.
Would you be surprised to learn that when Patty lost her re-election, she did not concede? Instead, she claimed her opponent actually won due to massive voter fraud, with millions of illegal ballots swinging the election. Although no evidence existed for such fraud, Patty had Larry launch a thorough investigation of the ballots. Larry’s control of the Department of Justice enabled him to trump up some initial fake evidence of voter fraud. Although newspapers and experts questioned this evidence, Patty used it to press her case. Moreover, Patty’s supporters believed her, and launched large demonstrations to support her power. With her control of the administrative and judicial resources associated with the Presidency, and the rallies of her supporters, Patty pressed the Electoral College to vote for her instead of her opponent. In four more years, Patty used the same tactics to transfer power to her chosen successor, Patty Jr. This is how the United States transitioned from a democracy into an authoritarian state.
While many non-American readers of this article might easily recognize this scenario as a common one for how democracies transform into authoritarian states, it may be hard for American citizens to do so, as we lack the experience of authoritarianism in our country. But it is happening all around us. A number of contemporary authoritarian leaders rose to dominance in recent years through post-truth tactics: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and of course, Vladimir Putin, has effectively ended Russia’s brief experiment with democracy. It would be naïve to think that it can’t happen here at home.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of arousing concern about truth in politics, Gleb went on conservative radio shows with hosts such as Scott Sloan, Dwight Lilly, and Larry Stevenson, all Republican activists. Here’s how Gleb recalls the encounters:
“I chose Republicans, as Trump is our first post-truth President and he is a Republican, making it more challenging to communicate with Republicans who would intuitively be disinclined to criticize their own party. The reasoning I used in my conversations appealed to what the hosts and their listeners cared about — poor decisions, corruption, and authoritarianism. We had very productive conversations during which we agreed on the dangers of post-truth politics and the importance of not taking any claims at face value, instead demanding credible evidence. In my post-show, informal discussion with him, Lilly said that our conversation really made him think, and, he told me, “that’s a dangerous thing.”
“Given that these hosts have a wide following among Republicans, the approach I outlined seems quite promising for getting them to care emotionally about fighting post-truth politics. The key is to determine what the people you seek to influence do care about, and show them how “alternative facts” will, in the end, destroy what they value. Doing so will enable us to form an alliance across the political spectrum to fight for truth in politics, in letter and spirit, for the sake of preserving our democracy and preventing us from sliding down into corruption and authoritarianism.”
That’s what the Pro-Truth movement is about, centered around the Pro-Truth Pledge (ProTruthPledge.org). It’s up to everyone who cares about the truth in politics to sign the pledge online as a declaration of their public commitment to truthfulness, and then encourage their elected representatives to do so too. Additionally, our new book, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics was written to people additional tools to spot the lies politicians tell, and provide ways of countering the pernicious effects of misinformation and viral deception on line. Please join us.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge (www.protruthpledge.org) and a well-known thought leader and scholar on fighting fake news, misinformation, and post-truth politics. Tim Ward is a communications expert based in Washington DC. They wrote Pro Truth together to help citizens learn to protect themselves from lies and empower them to put truth back into politics.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Vintage, 2012).
Levitt, Justin. “The Truth About Voter Fraud,” Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, November 9, 2007.
Nico H. Frijda, Antony S. R. Manstead, Sacha Bem eds., Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts. (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — -How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. (Times Books, 2011).
Tsipursky, Gleb and Tim Ward, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics (Changemakers Books, 2020).