Why are people so tolerant of lying politicians? It no longer seems to matter that politicians are exposed as liars, in fact some politicians have made a career out of being known as audacious liars. When one senior British politician is caught yet again in manufacturing falsehood, it is said that its only X behaving as X does. His lying makes him bit of a card. Nobody seems to mind that lies are increasingly becoming the common mode of the political dialogue. Politicians have always lied to protect their careers or to advance party interest; what has changed now is that the political lie is now seen as noblest of the political arts, being exposed as a compulsive liar no longer disqualifies a politician from the highest office, rather it is seen as a necessary qualification for high office. This terrible corruption of public behaviours is destroying the integrity of the political process. Democratic politics can only function if there is a certain degree of integrity, that is the political players must respect the rules of the game, when they show a contempt for these rules they discredit the whole system of governance.
There is a terrible warning from history that our politicians ignore at their peril. When in the fourth century BCE, Athenian democracy was threatened by the Persian kings, the whole population was united in resisting the invaders. Then when in the first century BCE the Romans invaded Greece, the population of Athens offered no resistance to the Romans when occupied their city. Once reason for this lack of resistance was that the political leaders of Athens had by their behaviours so discredited Athenian democracy that few felt it worth preserving. These politicians were masters in the art of fake news. They would use informers infiltrate their rival’s households and these informers would then claim to have evidence of salacious misbehaviour or wrong doing by their rivals. Personal vilification became the main mode of political debate, the practice of politics was largely reduced to the art of personal assassination. Although there is some difference in political practice today, politics tin its essentials increasingly resembles that of first century BCE Athens. Fake news, deception and dissembling are the most practiced of the political arts.
One obvious example of this practice is the attacks directed at the Leader of the Opposition. Whenever a government minister speaks of him, phrases such as a ‘friend of terrorists’ are always inserted into the conversation. Just as did the Athenian politicians ours practice the art of personal vilification. Not so long ago the government discovered a report by a former Czechoslovakian agent in which this agent claimed that the now leader of the opposition had sold state secrets to him. When these secrets had been supposedly sold to the agent, this leader was then an obscure backbench MP with no access to any state secrets. The fact that the story was totally implausible and easily discredited did not matter as it was an opportunity to smear the man. It’s political mud throwing it does not matter what is thrown as some will stick.
However the real problem of lying being elevated to the principle political art is that politicians never have the need to confront the truth. When evasiveness and dissembling characterise the art of politics, difficult and uncomfortable truths can be avoided. Particularly if confronting those truths would mean taking actions that would make the politician or government minister unpopular. Apart from a few dissidents, scientists are united in the view that the global climate is warming and this poses a serious threat to mankind. When for example the sea level rises as a consequence of global warming, many of the great cities of the world will become uninhabitable because of flooding. If the politicians took action to avert this impending catastrophe, it would be action that would make them unpopular with the voters. Averting this catastrophe is only possible if there is significant reduction in the production of the main green house gas carbon dioxide, this can only be achieved if there is a significant reduction in energy consumption. Such a reduction could only be achieved if the people, particularly those in the richest countries who use the most energy would accept a cut in their standard of living. Cutting energy means producing less of the goods and services that people desire. Making people poorer if only temporarily is a very unpopular policy option.
There is a good example of this dilemma in Britain’s recent political past. A city council in Scotland wanted to introduce a congestion charge to reduce the number of cars using its roads, as a means of reducing pollution in that city. Unfortunately it is common understanding amongst politicians that denying people the right to use their cars when and how they please is electoral suicide. Although this city council was controlled by the party in government, that government collaborated with the objectors to the scheme to prevent it being introduced.
Our political culture of lying and obfuscation provides a convenient escape clause for those politicians who don’t want to take unpopular action to halt climate change. There is an influential group of climate change deniers, funded and supported by the fossil fuel industries. Politicians can claim that the evidence for climate change is not yet conclusive, they can point to the research conducted by climate change deniers as proof of this. What matters least is this research is of little scientific validity, what matters most is that it exists. Claiming uncertainty as an excuse means that politicians can postpone or avoid taking those unpopular measures that are required to prevent global warming.
Perhaps it is the American Congress that provides one of the best examples of truth avoidance and evasion. There was from medical experts a demand that government to improve the nations health should persuade people to eat five portions of vegetables or fruit a day. Any such measure would mean that Congressmen would be going against the interests of the powerful processed food industry. As they would be promoting the same of fresh fruit and vegetables, which would have been at the expense of processed food. What Congress did instead was contrary to the recommendations of scientists, they decide that the tomato topping used on pizzas should be included as one of the five a day foods.
What the Athenian citizen witnessed in the First Century BCE, we are witnessing today. The slow decay of democracy. Democracy has always had its enemies, either foreign powers or powerful individuals and business corporations who hate the idea of being subject to the people. However just as with Athens the greatest threat comes from within the democratic system, that is from it’s leading practitioners. The practice of lying is corrosive of the human personality, such people no longer recognise or value truth. Truth is something quite alien to them. A list of all the ignored inconvenient truths about the threats to the health and viability is lengthy. When a senior official at the Bank of England said he could not understand how the Governor of the Bank of England could sleep at night, given the threat posed to the economy by the enormous debts of the banking system, he was ignored. All his concern rated was a short article in the little business columns of the newspapers.
When its leaders no longer value the norms and conventions that make democracy possible, its future is bleak. People who lie, cheat and are adept in all forms of malpractice, don’t make good guardians of our democratic system. A corrupt and dysfunctional Westminster or Washington no is incapable of serving the people. The people become disenchanted and see contemporary politicians as venal and corrupt. Such politicians have lost the respect of the people. Unfortunately the yearning of the people for good governance makes them susceptible to the charms of right wing populist leaders. Leaders who promise to clean up politics and make government once again the government of and for the people. In the 1930s when Washington and Westminster seemed helpless in the face of the Great Depression and did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the people, right wing fascist leaders such as Huey Long in the USA and Oswald Moseley in the UK became immensely popular. If circumstances had been more favourable to each they could both have brought to an end the liberal democratic experiment. Whatever Donald Trump might be he is no Huey Long, American democracy will survive Donald Trump. The real threat lies in the future, when the continued failure of the American Congress and the British Parliament fail to deliver for the people will discredit Anglo Saxon democracy. Then the people will welcome a strong leader to deliver from the self serving and venal politicians that currently govern them. What will destroy democracy is the worms at the centre of the democratic apple that cause it to decay and become rotten.
What I am writing now would be familiar to the people of the U.K. and the USA, who in the 1930s despaired of there governments taking effective action to solve the problems caused by the Great Depression. Only when democratic leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt took measures to reinvigorate the democratic system to ensure that it delivered for the people, was it able to survive. However if Huey Long had no been killed in 1935 it is likely that he would have become President in 1936 and replaced Roosevelt. He as President would have brought an end to liberal democracy in the USA. Surveying the contemporary political scene it seems that there seems to be a paucity of Franklin Roosevelt’s who could save liberal democracy from itself.