Are voters insensitive to lies? Rumi writes that the tongue is a guttering where words flow. But if the roof is not clean, then the words get thick and muddy. But what is more chilling is the fake eloquence of those who have erected elaborate gutters that drain water from other roofs. So why do people vote for candidates they know to be untruthful? James Madison wrote: ‘There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.’ Do electorates no longer care about the truth?
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are investigating how diversification of product lines and holdings depend on sincere commitment to original product lines to evade backlash. They have widened their focus and are now testing a theory to address a puzzling pattern that has attracted attention since the 2016 U.S. presidential election: how can a constituency of voters find a candidate ‘authentically appealing’ even though the candidate is someone who deliberately tells lies and appeals to non-normative private prejudices?
Britain elected a prime minister who unlawfully shut down parliament to escape democratic scrutiny. Did Johnson lie to the Queen? Eleven judges said the case was ‘justiciable’ and Johnson’s advice subject to the law. They ruled unanimously that the decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful as it had ‘the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification’. Lady Hale adjured: ‘No justification for taking action with such an extreme effect has been put before the court.’
In the most arresting fragment of its ruling, addressing remedy, Lady Hale instructed the speakers in both the Commons and Lords to reconvene both houses immediately. Their Lordships upheld the court of session’s ruling that the prorogation was null and void. They also stated that the privy council’s decision to ask the Queen to suspend parliament was also ‘unlawful, void and of no effect and should be quashed’. In effect, Lady Hale said ‘parliament has not been prorogued’.
Johnson was later elected by a landslide and the British public was unconcerned by his shutting down parliament. Nothing seems capable of shrinking the allure of Duterte, Johnson, Bolsonaro or any other populist firebrand who appeals to the cravings and prejudices of ordinary people rather than reasoned agency or rational argument. In 2016, American voters faced a choice between a presidential candidate whose campaign statements were truthful about 75% of the time and another who provided ‘alternate facts’ and dumbfounded lexicographers with the novel idea of ‘fake news’.
Common-knowledge lies may be understood as flagrant violations of the norm of truth-telling but when a political system is stressed by a crisis of legitimacy, then members of that public are motivated to see a flagrant violator of established norms as an authentic champion of its interests. Voters respond to corrections of lies voiced by politicians by reducing their belief in that claim when they discern the untruthfulness of the claim. But, updating beliefs does not have the beneficial consequence of downgrading the liar. Boris claimed that a Brexit extension would cost — £1 billion a month. This claim is misleading without being incorrect and assumes that with no deal, the UK won’t pay the ‘divorce bill’. In fact, no deal itself would have significant costs.
To restore lying as unacceptable requires that voters regain trust in the social contract and the political system. When constituents consider a political system to be legitimate, they resent liars and reject politicians who tell fibs. During COVID-19, countries like the Bahamas built walls to keep America out. But these walls made vivid for the first time that there is no equal place among the unequal. The dismantling of what separates us is overdue and avoided. It is now clear that inequality has compromised the legitimacy of democracy. Inequality will never be a basis for sustainable development. And cartographers who make maps to restart the search for El Dorado must begin with inequality and injustice. During his campaign Boris Johnson declined to look at a photograph of a boy sleeping under coats on a hospital floor in Leeds and moved on to discuss investment in the NHS.
It is only when the ordinary feel disenfranchised and omitted that they accept lies from politicians who claim to be defenders of the majority poor against the elite few. For anti-elitist politicians, who explicitly pit a mythical people against an equally mythical establishment, blatant disregard for facts only highlights their authenticity among their devotees. In Australia, voting is mandatory and preferential. Everyone must vote or risk being fined and voters rank their preferences among all parties. These measures help contain political polarisation and highlight how the design of a political system can impact a country’s welfare. Corrections of Australian politicians’ falsehoods make constituents much less inclined to be supportive. This occurs irrespective of partisanship, meaning that voters are intolerant of lies even if they seep from their own side of the fence.