Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity dare I say right to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.

Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.

The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are  professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.

It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.

It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.”   If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for  a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:

That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?

…. Or what we deserve?

If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.

Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive  (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive for the sake of the public good may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.

Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:

Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?

The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*

You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.


At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.



* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.

* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.

* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.


Harry  G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15

Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c

Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.

2 thoughts on “Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

  1. There’s a certain irony in Thomas Jefferson’s claims of self evident truth, Jefferson’s path to power was predicated upon a great falsehood (well he thought it to be false, or at least unlikely) that Britain after dealing with her European war would again turn her attention to the United States. He used this idea has a stick with which to beat John Adams and after a split electoral college and much Congressional wrangling eventually claimed the Presidency.

    Jefferson developed something of a track record: His continuing support for the French Revolution long after he became fully aware that the revolution had become a great terror of infighting and score settling, with the kind of tyranny he so vehemently opposed. The whole notion of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and westward expansion sat rather uncomfortably with Jefferson’s enlightenment moral constructs, basically Jefferson did exactly what he accused his Federalist opponents of; constructing a narrative to carry forward his policies.

    Is this not true of all politics and politicians? Even Lincoln?

    Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt stand head and shoulders above all other US politicians because they actually were revolutionary figures, changing the very nature of America and Americanism. Could they have done so without creating a narrative which supported their respective visions? It is only with history that these visions (perhaps narratives) were indeed proved to be correct.

    I’m not so sure that one can show any great difference between Plato’s nobles lies and Machiavelli’s state craft of The Prince, perhaps Machiavelli was just engaging in the kind of honesty that politicians really shouldn’t? There is perhaps one great truth of politics, that without power one can do nothing. It was what one does with power that really matters not perhaps how one courts public support. Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt remain great heroes of mine regardless of the invention of narrative.

  2. jefferson certainly is an interesting historical character. i think he is such an interesting figure for exactly the reasons why he is both revered and reviled; jefferson is a walking contradiction, a man who believes that all men are created equal and entitled to liberty while also believeing non whites to be inferior and holding slaves. he is a man whose political insight is beyond his time, yet he is unable to shake off the prevailing attitudes of his day. i think it is perfectly reasonable to admire jefferson for his politics and also hold that his views on race (even class) are something to be criticized — certainly since some of jefferson’s contemporaries did not hold to those same views.

    it is odd that america’s greatest presidents are those who were willing to violate the very principles that they espoused.

    that duality is one that every politician struggles with, isn’t it?

    as for the difference between platonic “noble” lies and machiavelli’s advocacy of deception — i feel that there is little, if any, difference between the two. your lies are platonic if you are in charge. lies are the product of a power hungry meglomaniac if you’re not. it depends entirely on how one views his own virtue. … and how willing one is to admit is the ultimate goal of his political power.

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