Does the truth count in politics? Or is it just a matter of doing what you have to do for the greater goal of making sure the “right” people and parties get elected?
Do we really want our leaders to be truthful, or indeed have any particular virtues? Or do we just want people who will do what we think should be done?
These are questions with complex answers. But in this complexity one simple idea stands out: in politics, as in life in general, there are many things we value more than truth.
The demotion of truth as a criterion for success (by both politicians and the electorate) is evident in the current US election, where politicians can make statements that are demonstrably false and escape unscathed, at least in the eyes of those who already support them. This is true of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and many of their supporters.
What we value most in politicians is not that they tell the truth, but that they agree with us, or at least that the worldview they espouse resonates with our own. Under these conditions, the minor incoherence of conflicting statements, or even outright lies, is a secondary concern compared with the greater coherence on offer.
It is partly for this reason that the lies of politicians we don’t agree with seem like howling inconsistencies — which we post on social media with wicked delight — while the lies of more agreeable politicians are just trifling matters, best overlooked or forgiven.
Truth is a poor second
But why should this be the case?
One way to understand this is to appreciate that humans are storytelling animals. From creation myths to parables, and even political ideologies, we create and embrace stories because they help us make sense of the world and understand our place within it.
We make stories, or narratives, that explain how the world works, how people prosper, how we should treat each other, and how we ought to behave. Many of these narratives are political – those on the left have different narratives from those on the right, for example.
We care much more that our narratives provide us with meaning than that they are true. Even when we value truth, we associate it with coherence. Therefore, the more coherent our own narratives, the more we think they are true.
As psychologist Daniel Kahneman has noted:
The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.
What’s more, we actively fight to maintain our narratives in the face of information that could corrupt them. It is often easier to ignore facts, or look for reasons to discount them, than it is to remake our narrative.
The decoupling of truth and politics and the consequent shrinking of evidence-based policy was eloquently demonstrated in 2013 by Joe Hockey, soon to be Australian treasurer, when he said:
Fact-checkers are entitled to their opinion.
The narrative trumps the facts
The problem is that often the truth does not speak for itself – it has to be interpreted through a narrative. This means facts alone are not enough.
As an example, the gun lobby in the US and those seeking gun control can see the same event as evidence for their own cases. Another mass shooting? To those supporting gun control, it’s a case of “if only the perpetrator had been prevented from accessing a gun”. To those pro-gun, it’s a case of “if only those around them were better armed”.
Both statements are completely coherent with the narratives of their proponents.
Politicians help us make narratives, or try to, and then appeal to them. Stories of us and the other, of lifters and leaners, of familiar and unfamiliar, are the stuff of political persuasion.
In the extreme, it’s a case of demonise, polarise, marginalise and cauterise – a ruthless and self-serving strategy in which protagonists fan the flames of discontent and ride the thermals to political success. More subtly, it can be an appeal to tradition or an invocation of stories that represent “better times”.
And once a narrative is crafted and accepted, we have a clear criterion for accepting or rejecting the views of others – does what you say fit my narrative or not?
When we ask someone what they think about an issue, it is more common that they will be performing this internal matching process than actually analysing the truth of the matter. They will be judging rather than thinking; reacting rather than engaging. This is exactly what politicians want, since tinkering with narratives is an effective path to manipulation.
What a political narrative fits, however, is not the truth but people’s collective and individual preferences. It is built primarily for utility, not for truth-seeking.
Ultimately, this explains the success of politicians like Trump. Trump has delivered a narrative that, for many people:
has explanatory power;
is coherent with what they feel about many things; and
offers a way out based on the unfolding of the narrative.
Clinton, too, has done the same.
Which one actually has the most traction with reality is an empirical question, but only one will be tested.
To decide between Clinton and Trump, American voters will have to decide which narrative they prefer, leaving the truth to emerge later from the political rubble.