How many ways can politicians ‘lie’? How a class led to a ‘truth’ report card for the 2016 election

How often do politicians lie? People image via www.shutterstock.com

I regularly teach a course called The Sociology of Television & Media in which my students and I critically explore newscasts, entertainment programming and (both commercial and political) advertising. The theme that I use as a touchstone throughout the class is: What happens when, as a society, we begin to mix fantasy and reality together in mass media?

We discuss how a range of troubling outcomes emerge for a public that has difficulty telling truth from fiction. Max Horkheimer, a German-Jewish sociologist, argued that this is part of what led to the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Once we lose our ability to detect lies, we become vulnerable to demagogues.

Six categories of rhetoric

About halfway through the semester, I have students deconstruct political ads, and we discuss practical resources for navigating the web of truths, half-truths and outright lies that proliferate unhindered during each election cycle.

One resource that I offer is Politifact.org’s Truth-o-Meter. Students fact-check politicians’ statements to determine how much, if any, truth is contained therein (they actually won a Pulitzer Prize for their work fact-checking the 2008 election).

The first, and perhaps most important, takeaway from their work is that modern political statements cannot accurately be rated as simply “true” or “false.” So sophisticated has the art of mixing truth and lies become that the scale Politifact currently uses includes six separate categories of political rhetoric: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and “pants on fire” (for statements that aren’t just false but also completely ludicrous - and yet still stated as truth).

In essence, while there is still but one way to tell the truth, there are now at least five times as many acceptable ways to lie.

For example, John Boehner’s May 3 2015 statement on Meet The Press that “we spend more money on antacids than we do on politics” is rated simply “false.” Fact-checking reveals that in the US, we spent somewhere between US$3 billion and US$7 billion on elections in 2014 (depending on what money streams you include), while we spent less than $2 billion on antacids in the same year.

Boehner’s team was apparently trying to compare global sales of antacids (including all seven billion people on the planet) to US spending on elections (about 320 million of us) - a false comparison.

On April 23 2015, Hillary Clinton provided a good illustration of a statement that rates as a “half truth.” When addressing the Women in the World Summit in New York City, Clinton asserted that the US ranks “65th out of 142 nations” when it comes to equal pay for women. The statistic comes from the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.

However, the primary measure generated by this report ranks the US 20th in gender equity. The ranking of 65th is taken from a subcategory in the report that relies on a survey of perceptions of executives rather than hard numbers. So, while it is technically true, it may actually be overstating the severity of the gender pay gap comparison.

Whom can we trust?

The second takeaway, though it may not be much of a surprise, is that there are_ no _politicians in this country that exclusively tell the truth. Every single one, to a greater or lesser extent, spins, bends, twists or breaks the truth.

Perhaps this is the price of power in our modern democracy, but we should find it at least a little troubling.

So where does this leave us? Well, knowing that every one of our politicians lies, the most important question, in my mind, becomes: Who is most often telling the truth and who is lying to us repeatedly in order to gain our support?

In other words, whom can and whom can’t we trust?

With this question in mind, I had my students add up the raw numbers for 25 major politicians (based on Politifact’s fact-checking over the past eight years) and write the results up on the board in rank order from most to least honest based on the data. The results were intriguing.

Can we tell when politicians are lying to us? The short answer is no. Lies image via www.shutterstock.com

While the prototype point system was not particularly sophisticated (two points for each true statement, one point for each mostly true statement, zero for half-truths, etc.), the numbers revealed that many well-known politicians were abusing the truth far more than they were embracing it.

When I asked the class what they thought of the results, one student raised her hand and replied, “I’m not shocked.” Many of the others immediately nodded their heads in agreement.

I wondered if we’ve become so accustomed to the bending and breaking of the truth that we no longer expect truth from our leaders. Now we’re teaching the next generation not to expect it either.

After seeing these preliminary results, I was hooked.

Generating ‘honesty’ report cards

I quickly returned to my office and began running the numbers on a total of 42 politicians (Republicans and Democrats) with the greatest name recognition and included every current presidential hopeful who has expressed some level of interest in running in the 2016 presidential election, to boot.

As of May 5 2015, only 37 of the 42 politicians included have made 10 or more statements that have been fact checked in Politifact’s database, so I immediately set aside the other five politicians as having too small of a statement sample to consider in the results (the possibility for error being too significant).

I decided to grade our politicians the same way that I would grade my students if their assignment was to tell the truth.

They receive an A+ (100) if they actually tell the whole truth, a B (85) if what they say is mostly true, a C (75) if they tell a half-truth, a D (65) if what they say is mostly false, an F (55) if it is plainly a lie, and no credit (0) if they fail to take the assignment seriously at all (“pants on fire”).

Each politician’s Honesty Score is then calculated based on the overall percentage of their statements that are true, false or somewhere in between. The results are as follows (hold on to your socks):

0 A’s, 3 B’s, 22 C’s, 9 D’s, and 3 F’s.

As of May 2015, according to a synthesis of Politifact’s fact-checking of actual statements over the past eight years:

The two most honest 2016 presidential hopefuls are:

Republican: Jeb Bush [B-]

Democrat: Hillary Clinton [B-]

The two least honest 2016 presidential hopefuls:

Republican: Ted Cruz [D-]

Democrat: Lincoln Chafee [C]

The only three politicians to receive failing grades:

Michele Bachmann [F], Herman Cain [F], Donald Trump [F]

Our three most powerful current representatives:

Barack Obama [C+], John Boehner [C-], Mitch McConnell [C]

The most honest politician in the US:

Cory Booker [B-]

You can take a look at the results for yourself:

2016 Presidential Hopefuls

Notable Democrats

Notable Republicans

Keep in mind, this kind of data tells us nothing about the views the candidates hold, or their policies, or even what kind of a leader they may ultimately turn out to be.

It does, however, tell us something important about how often they tell the truth to the public, and that should be something we hold them accountable for. It will be interesting to see how these same political leaders fare six months or a year from now when the races have really started to heat up, particularly those who look like they may be viable presidential candidates.

As teachers, caught up in our own subject matter, we easily forget that our students are hungry to apply what they’re being taught in our classes to something meaningful in their own lives.

It is our obligation to offer each generation a sense of social responsibility, hope for the future and the practical tools that will allow them to build it for themselves.

Something like a yearly Honesty Report Card might serve us well at this point in our democracy’s evolution. At the very least, let’s use this idea as a starting point for some kind of political unity in this country.

Whether you are liberal or conservative, can’t we at least agree that our politicians should start telling us the truth?

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