February 2004: Lies, Damn Lies, and Political Promises

In our political system, the politicians profit from perfidy
February 1, 2004

With crucial national elections looming this year in both Canada and the United States, it may be timely to ponder the problem of political prevarication--the tendency of politicians running for election to be less than honest with the voters.

Most of us know that we can’t trust politicians to be truthful. Ask almost anyone what politicians (of all stripes) do, and the answer, almost invariably, is: “They lie.” This mendacity is taken for granted. The term “an honest politician” has become an oxymoron.

But what kind of government can we expect to emerge from a process that is riddled with falsehoods? If you can’t be sure, when you go into the polling booth, whether the promises made by the party you support will really be kept, has the whole electoral procedure become a charade? Can a political system built on deception really be called a democracy? Obviously, it can’t.

Why do politicians lie? The short answer is: to get elected. For them, as for no other profession, making grandiose promises they never intend to keep--and which most voters don’t expect to be kept--remains, inexplicably, a viable strategy for electoral success. But there are at least six other reasons:

1 They can get away with it. There is no means of holding them accountable for broken promises.

2 There’s a good chance their lies will never be exposed.

3 They are convinced (often by their own polling) that most voters “can’t handle the truth.”

4 Even when exposed, their lies will continue to be believed by the people who want to believe them.

5 They can often manufacture plausible excuses for breaking their promises.

6 If all politicians are perceived as liars, why not vote for the ones who are most photogenic, most popular, most articulate, most entertaining? The politician’s best vote-getting attribute today is charisma, not veracity.

Occasionally, of course, it isn’t necessary for a

political party to make false promises to get elected. If, for example, most voters have been “pre-conditioned” by the media to believe that a party’s policies--e.g., tax cuts, “less government,” privatization--would benefit them if implemented, that party can afford to be truthful. The Tories in Ontario under Mike Harris come to mind. They promised the voters a “common-sense revolution,” and that’s exactly what they delivered.

Of course, even in this example, electoral success was based on deception. The promises were indeed honoured, with ideological fervor, but, instead of helping most Ontarians, they brought social, economic and environmental disaster (Walkerton, Hydro, tainted meat, underfunded schools and hospitals, etc.).

What the Harrisites did, mainly, was to please the requisite number of voters (less than a majority in a three-party contest) with tax cuts for the rich and upper-middle class that were made by cutting back on services for everyone. It was the sort of voter-bribing that reminded us that the blame for political chicanery can’t be laid solely on the politicians--that the voters can be just as culpable, if not more so. They often can see through the lies, but out of greed or perceived self-interest choose to ignore or forgive them.

The federal Liberals will probably rack up another comfortable majority in the upcoming federal election, even though they have been guilty of duplicity and corruption on a massive scale. Not only did they shamelessly break most of their election promises (dumping the GST and free trade being the most notable), but they also wallowed in more blatant patronage, fiscal fraud, pork-barreling, and corporate welfare scams than any other federal party in the country’s recent history.

Most voters, however, seem gullible enough to accept the myth that, under its new leader and prime minister, the Liberal party will suddenly become a model of political rectitude. (Even though Paul Martin himself, as finance minister, lavished unprecedented tax refunds on the rich while gutting social services for the rest of us.)

Other voters, though not as naïve, may feel that in opting for the Liberals they are choosing the least of several evils. They rightly see the Alliance or the Tories, under whatever right-wing guise or name, as unacceptable alternatives. Some will stick with the New Democratic Party as the one that most favours social and economic fairness, but probably not enough of them to much improve the NDP’s standing in Parliament. Not unless the NDP finds the courage to become once again an avowedly left-wing party--starting with a firm promise, if it forms the government, to pull Canada out of the FTA and NAFTA. That pledge alone would strikingly differentiate the NDP from the Liberals and Alliance.

Any left-of-centre party or politician in Canada could learn something from the campaign conducted by one of the contenders for the Democratic party’s nomination in this year’s U.S. presidential race: Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. Not that Kucinich has the slightest chance of becoming the Democrats’ standard-bearer against George W. Bush--in fact, he may even have been forced to drop out by the time you read this--but his campaign, while it lasted, struck a remarkable chord with many Americans, especially among that country’s youth. His platform was simple and straightforward: Cancel NAFTA and the WTO. An immediate pull-out from Iraq. A Canadian-style universal public health care system. Crack down on corporate crime. Set up a Department of Peace to balance the Department of Defense.

That’s it. His campaign literature ran to no more than 500 words.

Of course Kucinich was ridiculed by the U.S. media, and by most of his fellow Democrats, as at best a hopeless idealist, at worst a nutcase. He wasn’t taken seriously because, even though he was deadly serious, his proposals were seen as wildly unrealistic. A Department of Peace in the world’s most militaristic nation? Absurd! Abandon free trade in the world’s leading trade globalizer? Nonsense!

And yet these are ideas, no matter how visionary, that should be part of the political discourse, and Kucinich was sowing their seeds. They couldn’t take enough root to get him anywhere near the White House in 2004, but he continues to build a surprisingly strong base among disaffected young Americans, and who knows where that will take him (or someone like him) in 2008 or 2012? Kudos to Kucinich for daring such an uphill obstacle course.

* * *

The biggest barrier facing a left-of-centre politician, in Canada as well as the U.S., is not so much the prevalence of political deceit or even the propensity of voters to fall for it. It is the cynicism about politics that now runs so deep that many voters have lost hope that the system can ever be made truly democratic--and with it any hope that their vote really matters. Thus the precipitous drops in voter turnout in recent elections.

These no-show voters are not necessarily the least well-informed. Even when they know the truth and have a good grasp of the issues, the most knowledgeable among us may despair of effecting needed changes through a manifestly undemocratic voting system. (I now vote for the Green party candidate in my riding because I know that party is genuinely concerned about pollution and is not lying about its willingness to take tough measures to clean up the environment.)

A new book by Curtis White--The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves--makes a disturbingly persuasive case that, even when people learn about their government’s skullduggery, most of them continue to accept it as unavoidable, or even routine. Curtis calls this “the new censorship,” and says it doesn’t work by keeping things secret, but by revealing the worst political misdeeds and then presenting them as the way governments are forced to operate these days (to “keep our country strong,” “strike back at terrorists abroad,” “preserve liberty at home,” etc., etc.)

“Are our leaders liars and criminals?” he asks. “Is the government run by wealthy corporations and political élites? Are we all being slowly poisoned? The answer is yes to all of the above, and there’s hardly a soul on these shores who doesn’t know it. Oil policy created in backrooms with lobbyists from ExxonMobil. Election-rigging in Florida. All of these details are utterly public, reported in newspapers, on TV, in books, yet it’s perfectly safe for this stuff to be known. The betrayal of public trust is a daily story manipulated by the media and made a yummy fetish. We then consume it, mostly passively, because it is indistinguishable from our ‘entertainment,’ and because we suspect in some dim way that, bad as it surely is, it is working in our interests in the long run. What genius to have a system that allows you to behave badly, be exposed for it, and then have the sin recouped by the system as a saleable commodity!”

The same description could be applied--if not quite so drastically--to the Canadian scene. There surely have been enough federal Liberal government scandals exposed over the past few years to make its re-election unthinkable in a society whose people prefer political probity to political perfidy. The impending return of this iniquitous bunch of miscreants to another four years of misgovernment later this year is more an indictment of Canadian voters than of the rascals, dimwits, and corporate flunkeys they choose to represent them.

It’s also an indictment of a political system that makes this kind of travesty possible, perhaps inevitable. If we had a system based on some kind of proportional representation, as most other industrialized nations already have--one that gives equal weight to every vote cast and representation in Parliament proportional to each party’s share of the popular vote--then we might have some chance of getting fair and decent government. Combined with other electoral reforms (especially the elimination of corporate funding and control), a PR system would at least empower voters to democratize politics in Canada--if they really wanted to do so.

But how many Canadians share this desire for real democracy? If they were numerous enough, and if they joined and supported the Fair Vote Canada and Democracy Watch efforts to have Canada switch to a rep-by-pop voting process, we could sustain some hope for the future. Not that PR is a political panacea. It’s not. But it would at least replace our perverse first-past-the-post system with one in which real democracy would have a chance to develop, and perhaps even flourish.

Before any such initiative could seriously get under way, however, more courageous and candid politicians like Dennis Kunicich are needed, and with them more voters willing to explore the iconoclasts’ bold propositions. The current political confines are so stifling that any ideas regarded as politically incorrect, ideologically unsafe, or dangerously extreme (like dumping NAFTA) are automatically rejected by the ruling élites and their servile media. But these now-dominant forces are not invulnerable. Innovative ideas can sometimes break through the strongest censorship--even the “new censorship” that tries to discredit such ideas by ridiculing them.

It’s probably true, as Curtis’s book alleges, that most Americans don’t think for themselves. Probably most Canadians don’t, either. But surely enough of us do think for ourselves to bring a better future within the realm of attainability.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected])