Seeing Double: Can Leaders Lie?

Lying is a major issue in American politics today. President Donald Trump is notorious for issuing false or misleading statements — over 20,000 of them, according to The Washington Post. Though Trump’s deceit is widely criticized by allies and opponents alike, it raises another, broader question: Is it ever acceptable for a political leader to lie?

Thomas’s Take:

Everyone lies. One study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that most people can’t even get through a casual conversation without doing it. Many of these lies are wrongful, told out of selfishness, fear or malice. But others are told for good reason. 

When your best friend asks if you’re going to throw her a surprise birthday party, it’s typically better to lie than to admit as much. Some lies can prevent conflict, bring happiness or generally smooth the functioning of society. And even those who believe truth is preferable in all these previous examples might be tempted to lie in cases where one’s safety depends upon hiding the truth — consider the United State’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. In personal life, lies are not necessarily wrong. Sometimes, they are the best of a series of imperfect options. 

But is lying different when politicians do it? My co-columnist argues that politicians can’t lie because their lies have the potential to harm millions with their lies, rather than just themselves or those close to them, as is usually the case with private life. This is partly true, but if the potential harms of lies are magnified by public office, then so are the potential benefits. If a personal lie can save one life, then a public lie can save millions. 

Lies can reassure the public in troubled times. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from a multitude of health problems over the course of his presidency, ranging from being paralyzed from the waist down to hypertension and congestive heart failure. Yet Roosevelt repeatedly assured the public that he had no major health problems. Had F.D.R. admitted his dire physical condition, he might have sent a depression-wracked and fragile country into panic. 

Yet despite any lingering doubts, the public lapped up F.D.R.’s lies like my co-columnist laps up sriracha-covered rice. F.D.R.’s assurances helped keep the nation afloat because of his truth-bending rather than despite it. Lies soothed the public’s worries, just as my lies soothe my co-columnist’s fears when he asks if his hair looks good. 

Lies can also be essential for national security. Certain positions of leadership grant knowledge of which the public is not and cannot be aware. National secrets, hidden threats and other security risks would become dangerous if made public, both to the nation’s people and enemies. Perhaps a leader’s preference would be to simply keep silent on such matters, but when asked a direct question, silence can be as revealing as admission. In these scenarios, the only alternative to putting the public at risk is to lie. One could hardly have expected F.D.R. to be honest to the public about the Manhattan Project, for instance. Balancing truth and public knowledge is difficult and often mishandled, but obfuscation and false denial remain vital elements of leadership. 

My co-columnist will argue that the philosophy of democracy means that elected leaders are always obligated to tell the truth, no matter what. The flaw in that argument is that voters don’t stand by that principle themselves. In presidential elections, voters have, on occasion, rewarded politicians whose lies have been uncovered but deemed in the public’s interest. Once again, take F.D.R.. In 1940, as World War II escalated in Europe, F.D.R. promised the anxious public that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars” even as he prepared the U.S. for entry into the conflict. Despite his falsehood, the American public overwhelmingly reelected F.D.R., even after his duplicity became clear. The people realized that they had been wrong, and F.D.R. had been right.

Of course, the public doesn’t usually forgive deceit. In a clear example of public retribution for deceit, President Richard Nixon was removed from office after being exposed for lying during the Watergate scandal. Sometimes even well-intentioned liars are disgraced when their lies fail to achieve their intended goals, as occurred with President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War. Johnson had hoped that temporary lies about American involvement in Vietnam would eventually prove in the public interest. Unfortunately for him, the war went badly wrong, and the public backlash prevented him from seeking another term. Had LBJ’s decision proved a good one, he might have been a national hero like F.D.R., but his failure demonstrates that good intentions aren’t enough for a lie to be justified; you need good results as well. 

Ultimately, the arbiter of a lie’s merit isn’t the liar, but those who are lied to. And that fits well within the design of representative democracy: The people grant politicians a degree of autonomy, with the understanding that a free press and regular elections will judge the leader’s continued legitimacy and right to public office. Tempting as it is to imagine leaders who always defer to the public, the fact is that effective democracy depends upon leaders who balance their own judgment and the will of the people. 

After seeing the blatant, repetitive and self-serving way President Trump lies, it’s easy to think that no politician should ever deliberately mislead the public. But that’s like seeing an alcoholic and concluding that no one should ever touch wine. Trump’s example does little to address the central question of whether it is ever right for a politician to lie. Most lies told by politicians are immoral or unwise. Yet sometimes, lies are necessary to allow politicians to execute their duties. 

Coles Counter:

I’ll admit it: I lie on occasion. Lies smooth the edges of social interaction. When an acquaintance asks how I’m doing, I always say “good,” regardless of whether I actually feel good. And when my co-columnist asks me how his outfit looks, I have no choice but to be kind. We’ve built a culture of petty lies that keep everything moving along as it should. But when it comes to our elected officials, lies — even the smallest — are unacceptable.

Politicians lie in order to pursue objectionable policy and shape public opinion. Though my co-columnist writes mostly about the former, it’s the latter that’s most dangerous. President Trump constantly lies about what he’s doing and the general state of our country and world. As a result, millions of Americans’ worldviews are built on false foundations. Trump’s ability to successfully convince the public of his lies has divided our country between two opposite realities.

When a third of the country believes outright falsehoods against all evidence, it’s impossible for democratic institutions to hold the president accountable for his actions. My co-columnist puts a lot of faith in our ability to democratically reject politicians who lie against the public good but doesn’t acknowledge how those lies can prevent such a reckoning. Even when news agencies and Trump’s own administration fact-check his lies, many Americans still accept those lies as the truth.

Trump is most damaging when he lies to shape public opinion, but he also lies to hide covert policy decisions — as have many past presidents. Since 1776, we’ve trusted presidents to know when to lie and what to lie about, forcing us to assume that they have our best interests in mind. But democratic mechanisms, like elections and public pressure campaigns, require that we know what our government is doing. When an executive lies, they take away our ability to double-check and ensure that they’re actually working for us. My co-columnist argues that democracy lets us hold public officials accountable for lying, but the nature of lies — secrecy — compromises democracy’s systems of popular control.

After years of trusting presidents this way, we were rewarded with Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Iraq War, among others. My co-columnist points to F.D.R.’s lie about World War II as a “good lie” since the president was ahead of public opinion, but F.D.R.’s war-mongering lies are archetypal for American democracy. Time and time again, a lying executive has brought us into long, deadly wars. In January, it almost happened again when President Trump lied about an imminent attack from Iranian forces and assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Through decades of accepting executive lying, we’ve ceded incredible amounts of power to presidents who promise that they’re working for the public good without providing the receipts to prove it. President Johnson lied about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in front of Congress and the American people to secure broad power to pursue war in Vietnam. That authority was repealed only after seven years of fighting and over 1.4 million civilians and 300,000 soldiers dead.

With each lie, including those that my co-columnist would deem in the national interest, the executive insulates itself from democratic accountability. The smallest lies normalize a culture of lying that has irreparable consequences for our democracy. Roosevelt’s lies made Johnson’s possible, Johnson’s made Nixon’s possible, Nixon’s made Bush’s possible and Bush’s made Trump’s possible. No president is blameless — the pettiest of lies built the foundation for Trump’s alternative facts.

My co-columnist is right that there are things that the American public sometimes must not know. In these exceedingly uncommon instances, politicians should refuse to comment. The public has a variety of techniques to request information that isn’t provided by the executive, from congressional subpoena power to Freedom of Information Act requests. And the executive is able to refuse to provide classified material. But when the president lies in response to those requests, we have no recourse.

Instead of lying, politicians and elected officials should trust the American people to make decisions about what we want for ourselves. We have a representative democracy with elected terms to ensure that politicians can take risks — if we don’t like what a politician does, we have to wait until the next election to remove them in all but the worst cases, and sometimes not even then. No lying is necessary for exceptional governance, complete with gambles and risks. But when our system is perverted by lies, and when we aren’t given the information we need to ensure that our government works for us, our representative democracy becomes a dictatorship in all but name.

Want to join the discussion? Email your thoughts to [email protected]. We’ll respond to your thoughts in future columns.