Democracy’s at risk, it’s time politicians stopped fibbing -  OPINION

  08 July 2024    Read: 475
 Democracy’s at risk, it’s time politicians stopped fibbing -   OPINION

By Jamie Dettmer

Politicians and the truth have always been strained acquaintances, but faced with populist fabulists in our current post-truth era, is deception really the way to go?

Does truth matter less in politics than it used to? Have politicians always been “economical with the truth” — as a top adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once spun it — or has the tendency become worse in recent years?

From the recent European Parliament election to last week’s U.K. general election, from the U.S. all the way to France, the campaign trails have seen their fair share of fibs, large and small.

He’s no longer the man he was — physically or mentally.

Also, persisting with the claim that he’s fit as a fiddle and that he’ll breeze through another full term clearly isn’t persuading American voters. Days after his stumbling — and frankly unnerving — performance at the debate, a CBS/YouGov national survey found that 72 percent of registered voters don’t believe the 81-year-old is fit enough to serve a second term.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, whenever asked about possible tax raids on people’s homes, cars, pensions, savings and investments, Labour leader — and now new prime minister — Keir Starmer dodged and weaved on the campaign trail. “What I am not going to do is sit here two and a bit weeks before the election and write the budgets for the next five years,” he said in a radio interview. And day after day, his top aides insisted they had no plans or intentions to launch any tax hikes, dismissing any claims to the contrary as “scaremongering nonsense.”

But in a leaked recording, senior Labour lawmaker Darren Jones admitted to local party officials in his constituency that Labour couldn’t openly talk about revaluing homes for property tax hikes because if it did so, the party wouldn’t get elected. He also raised the prospect of major changes to inheritance tax in the same secret conversation . And Jones has now been appointed chief secretary to the Treasury in Starmer’s government.

Much like most Americans know in their hearts that Biden isn’t really up to another term and the White House isn’t coming clean, most Britons had a fair inkling that Labour wasn’t coming clean on the campaign trail either — the financials simply didn’t add up. Maybe that explains, in some ways, why there was little enthusiasm for Labour itself — voters just wanted to see the back of the Conservatives.

Not that the U.K.’s Conservatives were honest during the election either. As my colleague Jack Blanchard recently pointed out, neither the Tories nor Labour sought to address the huge, systemic problems Britain faces in any serious way: “Aspirations are bold but vague. Rosy outcomes are promised, without any real plan for how to deliver. Brexit is barely discussed at all. And nobody wants to talk about the enormous black hole in the nation’s finances awaiting whoever takes power on July 4.”

So, if Labour does impose a variety tax hikes — as seems highly likely — how will the public react? It has won a huge victory — but so had former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019, seemingly putting the Tories on track for a decade in power. Supermajorities don’t immunize a government from angry voters when they feel let down — especially when the electorate is as volatile and disenchanted with politicians as Britain’s. 

Americans are being told by the White House that President Joe Biden is fit and well, but they saw him debate former President Donald Trump with their own eyes just last week. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Refusing to come clean is just another form of lying — and it sticks in voters’ craw just as much.

EU leaders employed the very same tactic in the run-up to last month’s EU elections as well. Against a backdrop of angry farmers protesting across the Continent, they decided to keep enlargement talks to a minimum ahead of the polls, fearing it would only help populists. “Talking about less subsidies for European farmers is not something you’d want to put on your campaign slogans — or give as electoral ammunition for the far right,” an EU official told POLITICO.

So, is it any worse now than before? Maybe not — political falsehoods, evasions and distortions have always been par for the course, and politicians have always been knowingly economical with the truth. Even Shakespeare was almost always disdainful of them, “A politician … one that would circumvent God,” he noted in “Hamlet.”

Cast your minds back to 1960 and the White House campaign of soon-to-be U.S. President John F. Kennedy, which saw him claim that the Soviet Union possessed more nukes than America. The so-called “missile gap” figured prominently throughout the election, but two weeks after Kennedy was inaugurated, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted there was no such gap.

Then came U.S. President Richard Nixon who, during his reelection campaign, denied he had anything to do with the Watergate break-in. And on Jan. 26, 1998, we saw red-faced, finger-wagging U.S. President Bill Clinton take to the microphone to deny an extramarital affair: “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

In 2004, left-wing commentator David Corn managed a whole book on the deceptions of Clinton successor George W. Bush — “The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception” —arguing that America’s 43rd president had systematically “mugged the truth” as a political strategy.

And two years later there was “Le mille balle blu” (The Thousand Blue Balls — “balle” being a vulgar slang word for lie in Italian), chronicling the fibs of larger than life and sexually insatiable Silvio Berlusconi — Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, whose scandal-ridden career was full of outlandish falsehoods often involving dalliances with young women, and in one case an underage girl. Written by Italian journalists Marco Travaglio and Peter Gomez, it’s a much more uproarious — and in some ways even more disturbing — read thanks to the flamboyant life of Italy’s perma-tanned populist Lothario, a man the authors call “the most sincere liar that ever existed.”

So, yes, politicians and the truth have always been strained acquaintances. But in our current post-truth era, when faced with brazen populist fabulists like Trump, is deception really the way for their opponents to go?

If democracy is in danger, as they claim, further discrediting or corroding faith in it by not coming clean themselves won’t help.


Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The original article was published in Politico. 

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