Politicians are adept at exaggeration and obfuscation. They spin the truth, occasionally telling outright lies. Large numbers of people then repeat the latest political hogwash, forwarding it, posting it and replicating it in the media echo chamber. With enough reverberation, even obvious humbug can sound like truth.
It is not surprising that politicians stretch the truth. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli noted that a successful politician had to be as cunning as a fox. A sly political fox knows how to manipulate, ingratiate, provoke and inspire.
A good politician understands that social life is lubricated by white lies and insincere pleasantries. We say thank you when we don't mean it. We give unwarranted compliments. And we smile and nod even when we disagree. Social life would be cold and hostile if we were unwilling or unable to dissemble.
It is interesting that we are so willing to go along with the fakery and deception. Machiavelli explained that “the one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Politicians know how to appeal to our basic credulity. We are social animals who respond to the moods of our fellows without much concern for truth. We like to repeat gossip and rumors. We tend to believe and trust those who are like us.
We prefer stories that reinforce our other ideas and beliefs, pleasant stories that are easy to understand. No politician is going to admit that public affairs are incredibly complex, that human behavior is difficult to control and that unpredictable events will disrupt even our best-laid plans. The politician tells us instead that he or she has a clear plan for success and confident knowledge of the situation. And we are glad to believe. We desire certainty in an uncertain world.
Psychological well-being may hinge upon our ability to deceive ourselves in the face of uncertainty and failure. When you make a mistake, suffer rejection, or embarrass yourself, you have to find ways to downplay and ignore the truth so you can move forward. Self-doubt and self-recrimination can be paralyzing. It is useful to fudge the truth about yourself and your own abilities.
There may be an evolutionary explanation of our ability to deceive and dissimulate. The struggle for prestige involves a large dose of bluff and bluster. Outright deception is useful in struggles for scarce resources and in battles for territory and mates.
Mating rituals are obviously colored by deception. We fix our hair, our faces, our clothes — putting on a show for potential mates. These embellishments work, even though we know that beauty is only skin deep. Our tendency to fall in love with images and appearances might explain our tendency to believe political bunkum.
In an interesting recent book, “The Folly of Fools,” Robert Trivers explains that you will be more effective at lying to others if you are able to believe the lies you tell. The best liars sincerely commit themselves to what they are saying, somehow concealing the truth, even from themselves. Trivers suggests that the ability to believe your own lies provides an evolutionary advantage. He even argues that good health involves the ability to deceive yourself about your own well-being. Self-doubters will not do very well in the struggle for existence. Confident fakers will tend to succeed in battle, in the bedroom and in the ballot box.
Of course, this raises another question: Is it really a “lie” if you sincerely believe it is true? Lying is usually thought to involve a deliberate intention to deceive. But the best liars are those who are so sure of themselves that they don't even know they are lying.
This brings us back to the political echo chamber. The more a lie is repeated, the easier it is to believe. It is possible, then, that politicians don't deliberately lie. They may believe the tales they tell, supported in this belief by the reverberations of partisan advisors and supporters. We have an instinctive need to believe our own stories and the stories of those like us. Although they may appear to be cunning foxes, politicians may in fact be like the rest of us, herd animals who can't help believing what they hear and what they say.
Contact Fiala, a professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Fresno State, at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for the Fresno Bee.