Of course all politicians aren’t lying all the time. There are plenty of people who are in the world’s second oldest profession who don’t always fail to tell the truth. The problem is that most people have gotten so cynical about politicians that increasing numbers don’t believe them. Take a look at the polls about the respect that people have for Congress and the state legislature. The results are lower than a hound’s belly. So, if politicians lie we have to ask why, how often and whether they believe their own lies. The answer, it turns out, is complicated. I have always asked my students whether if you put a lie detector cuff on a politician’s arm when they are telling a lie whether you will get a straight line on the lie detector indicating truth, or whether you get a wavy line indicating they are lying. Obviously you will get both. Some political liars are brilliant tacticians who will, for example, tell you that they are for women’s rights but create an economic system that will punish women in their quest for equality and fair treatment. Put a lie detector cuff on their arm and you might well get that straight line. They may actually believe their own lies.
Some of our best and most impressive politicians have lied constantly to get their public to a point where they are allowed to follow the politician in a laudable direction. Take the case of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR knew that the country had to protect the world from fascism but the country, still reeling from World War 1, had to be led kicking a screaming into what is now seen as the greatest American effort ever. Was Roosevelt aware that he wasn’t exactly telling the truth when he promised that America wouldn’t get into the war? Did we know that a Japanese attack was coming somewhere, somehow? Most historians now give FDR great credit for his manipulations. I certainly do. What would the lie detector have said if he was asked the lying question?
Now take the question of ethics reform in the New York State Legislature. The folks there are always anxious about job security and their ability to act with as much personal latitude as possible, keep passing weak, watered down ethics reforms. Do they know that these efforts are hardly the thing that will really clean up Albany? Of course they do. Are they lying? Put in a total context, of course they are. A governor who establishes a Moreland Act Commission and then kills that very commission when they get on the scent as a hound chasing a criminal in order to get half-baked reforms says that politics is a matter of tactics and compromise. Was he lying when he set up the Commission? We are told that he’s being investigated by the United States Attorney Preet Bharara and he’s so far ahead of his opponent Rob Astorino in the polls that Astorino is seen as having no chance at all in the coming election.
When asked about Governor Cuomo and why people are voting for him they will tell you that “He gets things done.” So, one might come away from this discussion thinking that people believe that all politicians tell lies but that there are good lies and bad lies. Governor Cuomo passed a courageous “SAFE Act” to try to stop the gun mayhem. If you put the lie detector on his arm and ask him whether he did it to really protect people, or to further his own career or both, you might get a wavy line, but who cares? He did the right thing.
When the Assembly Democrats pass campaign financing for politicians knowing that the Republicans in the Senate would never permit the bill to pass and they say that they want the bill to pass, even though they know they will get opponents who will run against them, are they liars? You tell me. When Andrew Cuomo told you that he would veto a bill that allowed the Republicans in the state Senate to draw their own districts and then didn’t, was he lying? You tell me.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 7/22/14