We recently wrote about morality in governance, asserting that—aside from religion—there exists a core of secular morality that the public and its civic culture expects elected leaders to adhere to. One precept that lately seems to be severely tested is truth-telling or, conversely, lying. This is not to say that politicians are not expected to or prone to exaggeration, especially in campaigns. However, once in office, the clear expectation of the public is that an elected official will be truthful or refrain from lying. Sadly, this criterion appears to be in mortal jeopardy.
A new research report published in Vox on July 2, 2018 [https://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2018/7/2/17520264/politicians-lies-trump] concludes that the importance of honesty first will prompt voters to call out a lie when presented with new information that contradicts the statements of elected officials. This choice mechanism will occur despite political affiliation and ideology. Previous research indicated that mere contradiction of such statements might cause the voter to dig in even deeper in favor of the speaker.
On June 12, 2018, the President met with Kim Jung Un, North Korea’s leader, and announced in a June 13 tweet that the nuclear threat from that nation had been ended. One week later, Secretary of State Pompeo testified before Congress that North Korea remained a nuclear threat. The most recent intelligence reports indicate that the DPRK has ramped up its nuclear arms development.
In a June 13 Fox News interview, the President claimed that during the 2016 campaign, “thousands of parents” of Korean War military families requested return of the remains of loved ones from the fighting, which ended in 1953. Days later during two rally appearances—in Nevada and South Carolina—the President stated that the remains of 200 US military had been returned. Once again, Secretary Pompeo was forced to announce that “We have not yet physically received them.”
The American public has a deep tolerance for “puffery” from advertising, tending to discount incredible claims. In fact, even in law, courts recognize that such statements are mostly broad and general—subjective—which no reasonable person would believe. The President’s statements, in contrast, were very specific, alleging an end to nuclear development in North Korea and the actual return of the remains of 200 military members. There was no room for puffery as the words were concrete, specific—and demonstrably untrue.
The question arises as to what can be done to hold an elected official to truth telling and avoiding lying. In the present environment, the answer is nothing. Will voters remember this transgression against secular morality? And what of the families of those US military who may survive to this day?
As our expectations of morality in governance are diminished or even shattered, our confidence in elected leadership suffers. A vote for the lesser of two evils in such circumstances is suicidal. Any vote is preferable to not voting.
“Honesty is the best policy” is traced to Sir Edwin Sandys in 1599, a prominent founder of the Virginia Company. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart offered that a definition of hard core pornography might not be possible but concluded that “I know it when I see it.” These two criteria present the media with additional possibilities in reporting aside from emphasizing contradictory information and establishing a norm for the public regarding credibility versus cognitive meltdown.