When do people get to lie in public life without consequence? I don’t think public officials lie about facts that often (and when they do, they usually get smacked), but they lie about motives all the time.
A classic example comes about in re-districting time, which most states will go through in 2011 after the 2010 Census numbers come in. In addition to the normal adjustments involved with population changes, my state is poised to gain its 4th Congressional seat. This state is completely controlled by Republicans, and redistricting will be all about gaining as much partisan advantage from this additional seat as possible.
Everyone knows that increasing partisan advantage is what redistricting is about. In fact, it really isn’t about anything else, as any map of the screwed up legislative districts in the US can easily attest. But politicians invariably say something like, “We are not trying to gain partisan advantage; we are just trying to promote the interests of all the state’s voters” or “We are trying to get balance between urban and rural voters within districts.”
Another goodie outside the political realm is when university presidents–intelligent people with PhDs–say that the reason the BCS conferences don’t want to move to a national football playoffs in college football is because they are concerned about their “scholar athletes” getting their final exams messed up, or some similar gibberish. The real reason, which everyone knows, is that BCS conferences and owners of the bowl games don’t want to give up the money and prestige they get from the current system. This is not a mystery.
Another sports case will be the unsuccessful coach who quits “to spend more time with his family” (only to pop up in a couple of months in some equally stressful job across the country).
So why is this blatant lying OK? The media not only don’t care, they expect it and even facilitate it by letting these types of outlandish statements go unchallenged in many cases. Put a typical Congressman in front of a TV camera, and you are assured of one thing: total B.S. Congressman Spineless will never say “Ya know, I changed my vote for this bill because the Speaker completely intimidated and threatened me” even though everyone knows that is the truth. Instead, Congressman Spineless comes up with some lame rationale for his changed tune, and everyone gives him a pass.
We could come up with a simple cost-benefit model of lying. Motives are hard to prove, so lying about them is relatively low cost. Winning votes and staying in power has a high benefit. That explains a lot of it, I think. But reaching a John Edwards level of sliminess seems to take a certain serious pathology that goes way beyond simple cost and benefits.
We have all become so accustomed to political lies that we barely notice anymore. We recognize most of the spin for what it is, and we try to uncover actual motives without the delusion that politicians will ever say anything truthful about their motives.
We seemed to have arrived at this strange equilibrium where everyone knows that we are being lied to on a continual basis, but we put up with it. Indeed, the more outrageous the claim, the less scrutiny it gets sometimes. Apparently it is OK to lie if what you are saying is complete balderdash and not a soul believes you.