We live in a society of law and order, of values and mission statements, oversight, accountability, and in which transparency is highly valued.
Witnesses at judicial hearings are held in contempt if they lie, individuals who knowingly make false and harmful statements can be held libellous, advertisers can’t lie about their products, students can’t cheat on their assignments and parents are expected to teach their children not to lie.
We aspire to respect and live by the rule of law, and hold others to the same standard.
There appears, however, to be an exception. Political leaders are given grace to lie, deceive and prevaricate. This is especially apparent during election campaigns. The recent election was no exception.
It’s no longer scandalous to tell a lie. The practice is so pervasive and normal that media outlets now routinely have fact checkers assessing the truthfulness of statements made by politicians.
In the exceptional case of Donald Trump, the Toronto Star has kept track of every false claim he has made since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. According to Daniel Dale, Washington bureau chief, the U.S. president has made thousands of falsehoods.
The Star notes that dishonesty should be challenged and inaccurate information should be corrected. It’s also careful to say that it prefers to give Trump the benefit and call his untruths “false claims” and not “lies,” because one can’t be sure that every untruth was intentional, noting that in some cases he may have been confused or ignorant. But we know, objectively, that he wasn’t telling the truth.
In Britain, with elections scheduled for Dec. 12, the BBC is well on the way to identifying false facts by primary contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Our politicians are not exempted. Canadian media, including CBC, Global News and CTV, conduct fact checks. The process has become so normalized that the Canadian Press offers the Baloney Meter, a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney.”
Politicians as far back as Themistocles exaggerated their platforms and policies while equivocating those of their rivals. But neither Themistocles nor Richard Nixon had to contend with the Internet.
The lies by today’s political leaders – or, if you prefer in cases of ignorance, untruths – seem to have less impact on the credibility of the candidate and much more on the ability of the electorate to make thoughtful and informed decisions.
Election spin doctors have become expert at twisting their version of truth to fit the expectations of the audience. The term fake news refers to the subjectivity of the news and truths seem to have multiple versions.
The very concept of political spin implies the manipulation and exploitation of the electorate.
We the electorate should be offended and ashamed that we’ve become so susceptible to being deluded, manipulated and pitted against ourselves by self-serving politicians, who only peripherally seem to care for the values of honesty and integrity.
The notion that politicians have divided us into their bases undermines the very notion of democracy. If society is continually parsed into fixed camps that only vote along party lines, regardless of any rational reason to consider an alternative, then there is no more democracy. Politics will have resulted in fixed ideological camps perpetually voting for their parties.
Leadership is increasingly determined by the ability to denigrate one’s opponent rather than demonstrating your potential.
The base doesn’t really care about the ability of their leaders, so long as they’re of the right stripes and are willing to vitiate the opponent.
There have been great Liberal and Conservative leaders since Confederation, as there have been great Republican and Democratic leaders in the United States.
An educated and informed electorate remains open to policies and leadership, choosing the better, regardless of the stripe.
An uninformed and manipulated base, on the other hand, is absolved of choice. They don’t participate in appropriate deliberation and thus become susceptible to manipulation.
Almost everyone, even the media, seems to accept the falsehoods, lies and exaggerations of politicians during campaigning as separate from subsequent governance. Who knows how much of the electorate is influenced by lies, falsehoods and misinformation?
Hyper-partisanship and lack of deliberative democracy even leads some to challenge the conventional wisdom that the future of democracy lies in encouraging more widespread participation.
Democracy or rule by the people depends on a society that values education and knowledge. We need to do much better to educate the next generation of electorate to thoroughly examine what political leaders tell us and to holding them accountable.
We should also institute a charter of conduct for political leaders, requiring honest and straightforward answers to questions, and adherence to core values and principles that hold them responsible for their promises.
Anil Anand served as a police officer with a Canadian service for 29 years in a variety of roles, including being assigned to Interpol. He has a master of law degree, as well as an MBA, and has taught criminology and community policing courses. His book Mending Broken Fences Policing, looks at the role of contemporary policing in modern society.