Radical self-definition destroys the self and the nation.
Liars and Leaders
How our political leaders lost our trust…and how we enabled it.
Lying in defense of narrative is no vice. Just ask our political leaders.
Democrats and the media told us a few weeks ago that border patrol agents on horseback were whipping Haitian migrants. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley tweeted, “Use of whips on refugees? Disturbing and unacceptable. This must end immediately.” Democratic Representative Maxine Waters said it was “worse than what we witnessed in slavery.” President Biden added that the images of “people being strapped” were “horrible,” and “I promise you, those [border patrol agents] will pay.”
Except it didn’t happen. No migrants were whipped. The photographer who took the now-infamous photo said himself that he didn’t see the agents whip anyone. And, as horse patrol experts have explained, the “whips” in question were actually reins used to steer the horses.
But tweets are still up, the few media corrections made were done quietly, and Biden still hasn’t apologized to the agents he maligned.
White House economists also lied to us recently. They reported that the 400 wealthiest households in the country (all with a net worth between $2 and $160 billion) pay an 8.2% effective income tax rate—lower than the tax bracket for people making under $10,000 a year. If that sounds far-fetched to you, that’s because it is.
The economists arrived at such a small number by counting unrealized capital gains to artificially inflate the households’ total income. Households that didn’t see a penny of investment income in their bank accounts, but whose stock portfolio increased in value, were treated as though they had sold their stocks and collected income. Even the New York Times ever-so-gently rebuked this method, pointing out that “Most measures of tax rates do not use the White House method of counting asset gains as annual income.” There’s a reason for that. The true number for the 1,400 wealthiest households is closer to 24%, compared to an average rate of 14% for all taxpayers, according to the Tax Policy center.
These are lies in defense of narrative.
In the former trumped-up story, Democrats and the media are heroic warriors fighting social injustice, and border patrol is very bad. It’s one more data point illustrating all that is wrong with America. Clearly, the country is anti-immigrant and racist. Don’t you see? We whip those fleeing from suffering in their homelands.
In the latter falsehood, the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The White House economists used an unconventional methodology to construct a false narrative that angers the public and makes the funding mechanism for their $3.5 trillion spending bill look a little bit more enticing. Biden didn’t try to hide it, tweeting “You pay your share in taxes. It’s long past time the super-wealthy pay theirs as well,” linking to the White House economists’ finding.
They know that narratives are powerful. Narratives are how we understand the world. Narratives can sway public opinion and galvanize people into action.
Deception, misinformation, disinformation, manipulation, spin—they all seem to be ingredients baked into the political cake these days. Politicians are expected to lie. I’m sure you don’t like being lied to. I know I don’t. Why do they keep doing it?
You get what you allow. Politicians lie and we let them. And they won’t stop until we make them.
Every time we fail to punish those who lie to us—either with outright condemnation or withdrawal of support—we invite them to tell us more lies. Every time we praise them for defending our preferred narrative with falsehoods, we reward their deceit. The liars themselves are no doubt guilty, but we are complicit.
Lying in defense of narrative is a vice. And if honesty is a trait we value in our political leaders, then they need to feel the consequences of deceiving us.