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Democracy is in danger, it’s time for politicians to stop lying

Jamie Dettmer is an opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

Does truth matter less in politics than it used to? Have politicians always been “economical with the truth” – as an adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once put it – or has the trend worsened in recent years?

From the recent European Parliament elections to last week’s British general election, from the United States to France, election campaigns have seen their fair share of lies, big and small.

The White House has assured Americans that President Joe Biden is in great shape, but they saw him debate former President Donald Trump with their own eyes last week. He is not the man he once was, physically or mentally.

Moreover, continuing to claim that he is in great shape and will get through another term is not convincing American voters. Days after his faltering – and frankly disconcerting – debate performance, a CBS/YouGov national poll found that 72 percent of registered voters do not think the 81-year-old is fit enough to serve a second term.

Meanwhile, in Britain, whenever he was asked about potential tax raids on people’s homes, cars, pensions, savings and investments, Labour leader – and now new prime minister – Keir Starmer dodged the answer. “What I’m not going to do is sit here two weeks and a bit before the election and write budgets for the next five years,” he said in a radio interview. And day after day, his top advisers insisted that they had no intention or plan to launch any tax hikes, dismissing any claims to the contrary as “alarmist nonsense.”

But in a leaked recording, Labour MP Darren Jones admitted to local party officials in his constituency that Labour could not talk openly about revaluing homes to increase property taxes because if it did, the party would not be elected. He also raised the prospect of major changes to inheritance tax in the same secret conversation. And Jones has now been appointed chief secretary to the Treasury in Starmer’s government.

Just as most Americans know deep down that Biden is not really ready to run for another term and that the White House is not ready to be transparent, most Britons felt that the Labour Party was not ready to be transparent during the election campaign either – the finances just didn’t add up. Perhaps this explains, in a way, why the Labour Party itself generated little enthusiasm – voters simply wanted the Conservatives out.

The British Conservatives were also dishonest during the election. As my colleague Jack Blanchard recently pointed out, neither the Conservatives nor Labour have sought to seriously address the enormous systemic problems facing the UK: “The aspirations are bold but vague. Promises of promising outcomes are given, with no real plan to deliver them. Brexit is barely mentioned. And no one wants to talk about the enormous black hole in the country’s finances that awaits whoever takes office on 4 July.”

So if Labour pushes through a raft of tax rises – which seems very likely – how will the public react? It won by a landslide – but so did former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019, which seems to put the Conservatives on course for a decade in power. Supermajorities do not protect a government from angry voters when they feel let down – especially when the electorate is as fickle and disenchanted with politicians as Britain’s.

The White House has assured Americans that President Joe Biden is in great shape, but they saw him debate former President Donald Trump firsthand last week. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Refusing to tell the truth is just another form of lying, and it remains just as annoying to voters.

European leaders also used the same tactic in the run-up to last month’s European elections. Amid angry farmer protests across the continent, they decided to keep talk of enlargement to a minimum before the election, fearing it would only serve populists. “Talking about cutting subsidies for European farmers is not something you want to put in your campaign slogans — or give as an electoral argument to the far right,” one European official told POLITICO.

So is the situation worse today than it was before? Perhaps not—lies, prevarications, and political distortions have always been commonplace, and politicians have always been consciously stingy with the truth. Even Shakespeare almost always despised them: “A politician … one who would circumvent God,” he noted in “Hamlet.”

Recall 1960 and the election campaign of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who claimed that the Soviet Union had more nuclear weapons than the United States. The “missile deficit” loomed large throughout the campaign, but two weeks after Kennedy’s inauguration, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that there was no such deficit.

Then came US President Richard Nixon, who during his re-election campaign denied any involvement in the Watergate break-in. And on January 26, 1998, we saw US President Bill Clinton, red-faced and pointing an accusing finger, take the microphone to deny any extramarital affair: “I want to tell the American people one thing. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say it again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

In 2004, left-wing commentator David Corn wrote an entire book about the deceptions of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush: “The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.” claiming that the 43rd president of the United States had systematically “distorted the truth” as part of a political strategy.

And two years later, there was “The blue thousand ball“(The Thousand Blue Balls — “ball” being a vulgar slang word for lie in Italian), chronicling the lies of a larger-than-life, sexually insatiable Silvio Berlusconi – Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, whose scandal-plagued career was full of outrageous lies often involving affairs with young women, and in one case a minor. Written by Italian journalists Marco Travaglio and Peter Gomez, it’s a much more hilarious – and in some ways even more disturbing – read thanks to the flamboyant life of the perpetually tanned Italian populist Lothario, a man the authors call “the most sincere liar who ever lived.”

Politicians and truth have always been on good terms. But in the post-truth era, when faced with brazen populist fabulists like Trump, is deception really the way forward for their opponents?

If democracy is in danger, as they claim, further discrediting democracy or corroding trust in it by failing to be transparent will not help.


Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe. Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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