When Presidents Lie | The Nation


When Presidents Lie

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In a series of visionary works published in the early 1920s Walter Lippmann examined what he believed to be the necessary preconditions for the operation of a successful democratic republic--a competent, civic-minded citizenry with access to relevant details of public policy. He argued that the entire notion is dangerously utopian and ought to be shelved. At the heart of republican theory, in Lippmann's view, stood the "omnicompetent" citizen. "It was believed that if only he could be taught more facts, if only he would take more interest, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he would gradually be trained to direct public affairs." Unfortunately, Lippmann concluded, "the whole assumption is false." In truth, Lippmann argued, "public opinion" is shaped in response to people's "maps" or "images" of the world, and not to the world itself.

This article is adapted from When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, by arrangement with Viking Penguin. Copyright © 2004 by Eric Alterman. Click here for more info and to purchase copies.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Mass political consciousness does not pertain to the actual environment but to an intermediary "pseudo-environment." To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is further corrupted by the manner in which it is perceived. Citizens have only limited time and attention to devote to issues of public concern. News is designed for mass consumption; hence, the media must employ a relatively simple vocabulary and linear story line to discuss highly complex and decidedly nonlinear situations. The competition for readership (and advertising dollars) drives the press to present news reports in ways that sensationalize and oversimplify, while more significant information goes unreported and unremarked upon. Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippmann argued, news "comes [to us] helter-skelter." This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more nuanced, "as for example, in the matter of a success of a policy or the social conditions among a foreign people--where the real answer is neither yes nor no, but subtle and a matter of balanced evidence," then journalism "causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding and even misinterpretation." Here Lippmann was identifying a problem that has since increased in both time and scope, as media sensationalism and public apathy have increased exponentially since the publication of his prophetic work.

Lippmann's pseudo-environment is not composed only of the information we receive; it consists, in equal measure, of what Lippmann terms "the pictures in our heads." Voters react to the news through the lens of a personal history containing certain stereotypes, predispositions and emotional associations that determine their interpretations. We emphasize that which confirms our original beliefs and disregard or denigrate what might contradict them. Lippmann compares the average citizen to a blind spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event. "He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct." As a result, Lippmann lamented, democracy, in modern society, operates for only "a very small percentage of those who are theoretically supposed to govern." No one expects steelworkers, musicians or bankers to understand physics, Lippmann believed, so why should they be expected to understand politics?

John Dewey replied to Lippmann in the May 3, 1922, New Republic and later in an important though tendentiously written work, The Public and Its Problems, published in 1927. Dewey conceded that voters were not "omnicompetent"--that is, "competent to frame policies, to judge their results, competent to know...what is for his own good," and he passionately shared his republican hope that government could be formed to inspire generosity and civic-mindedness in the citizenry. But he disagreed with Lippmann's sanguine trust in the beneficence of elites. "A class of experts," he argued, "is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all." An expert shoemaker may know best how to fix a shoe, but only its wearer knows where it hurts. "Democracy must begin at home...and its home is in the neighborly community." Unfortunately, Dewey noted, "indifference is the evidence of current apathy, and apathy is testimony to the fact the public is so bewildered that it cannot find itself."

Taken together, these analyses provide at least a partial explanation for the constancy of presidential deception in American political life. On the one hand, Americans carry an unrealistic picture of the world "in their heads"--one based on their faith in their own divine direction, disinterested altruism and democratic bona fides rather than the realities of politics, force and diplomacy. But education has never lived up to Dewey's hopes, so Lippman's critique of the inherent inability of democracy to cope with complexity remains salient. These failures, moreover, are exaggerated in the American case by a particular distaste for the practice of power politics and media that have insufficient incentive to provide the basics of civic literacy to their audience. Even those Presidents with the best of intentions come to view deception as an unavoidable consequence of a system that simply cannot integrate the unpleasant realities of international diplomacy.

However preferable it might be to tell the truth, the short-term costs of lying, given that the culture seems to expect it, are negligible. And as Friedrich Nietzsche instructed, these temptations are virtually impossible to resist. While people may desire "the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, [they are] indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences, [and are] even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths." The long-term costs of lying--at least at the moment the lie is being told--are almost always invisible. The ultimate costs for this easy calculation, however, are considerable, not only to the nation and to the cause of democracy but also to the aspirations and legacies of the Presidents themselves.

Whether this situation is remediable depends on one of two possibilities: Either future Presidents become convinced that the long-term cost of deception outweighs its short-term benefits, or the public matures to the point of seeking to educate itself about the need for complicated arrangements in international politics that do not comport with the nation's caricatured notion of itself as an innocent and benevolent force throughout the world. The obvious solution would be to convince US Presidents of the value of substituting a long-term strategic vision in place of their present-minded, short-term tactical views. But "nothing in politics is more difficult than taking the long view," notes the reporter Ronald Brownstein. "For politicians, distant gain is rarely a persuasive reason to endure immediate pain. Political scientists would say the system has a bias toward the present over the future. Parents might say politicians behave like perpetual teenagers. The problem, for politicians as much as teenagers, is that the future has a pesky habit of arriving."

The pragmatic problem with official lies is their amoeba-like penchant for self-replication. The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people. Eventually the lies take on a life of their own and tend to overpower the liar. Lying may appear to work for a President in the short term, and in many cases it does. But a President ignores the consequences of his deception at his own political peril.

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