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Why Can’t Politicians Be Honest?

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Why can’t our political leaders be honest with us? How can Governor Mitt Romney declare Obamacare is unwarranted government interference in our lives when he promoted a nearly identical policy in Massachusetts? And why doesn’t President Barack Obama level with us that political opposition made it impossible for him to ban assault weapons?

It would be easy to blame the fact-twisting that characterizes political campaigns on the flawed character of the candidates. But the epidemic of less-than-truthful rhetoric is too widespread to be simply a character issue. It is we, the electorate, who make it hard for politicians to be honest. We say we want honesty, but we don’t behave that way because we want our candidates to be winners. In other words, we value the outcome more than the process.

The conundrum is that while we want candidates to be honest, we punish them when they actually tell us what they think.

Our judgments are colored by perceptual bias, especially when we are judging others with whom we disagree. We see their failure as a reflection of their personal limitations and we downplay the context. So, whether the issue is the slow economic recovery or the death of American diplomats in Libya, we attribute failure to a person, in this case, President Obama. No matter how difficult the situation the president inherited or how foggy the conditions of war, failure is attributed to him — particularly by those who oppose him. The challenger’s job is to make the failure as stark as possible.

We don’t make it easy for candidates to admit error. An admission becomes fodder for criticism and we give them little credit for honesty. Perhaps Governor Romney could extricate himself from the dilemma he faces over the Affordable Care Act if he just said that he had made a mistake supporting the Massachusetts plan. But doing so would likely enrage his supporters and provide ammunition to his opponents.

The honesty conundrum is that while we want candidates to be honest, we often punish them when they actually tell us what they think. John Silber, the late president of Boston University who ran for governor of Massachusetts, scuttled his candidacy after a journalist asked him about his strengths and weaknesses. He responded that his strengths were that he was “competent” and “honest.” But he refused to list his weaknesses, dismissively saying, “You find the weakness.” It was a candid, but impolitic moment that ultimately hurt him.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly in his Pogo comic strip

We might encourage more authentic political discourse if we alter our behavior and begin to reward honesty. Doing so isn’t simple because it means we’ll have to learn how to wrestle with complexity: policies that have both good and bad aspects, individuals who have strengths and weaknesses.

Part of the process involves putting ourselves in the leader’s shoes. If we want more honesty from candidates, we need to be better at accepting their explanations for success and failure, much as we would do if we were assessing our own lives.

We need to accept our leaders as imperfect human beings. But in a “gotcha” era, fueled by the amphetamine of social media, there is little room for forgiveness. Not every statement, decision, and policy will be perfect. Perhaps the leader who has made and learned from mistakes will be more effective than one who has never faced such challenges

Our presidential candidates appear to agree on very little except that the coming election is important. That the campaign has focused less on substantive policy and has devolved into jousting about differing narratives demeans the candidates and undermines our capacity to respond to a host of internal and external challenges.

It may be comforting to attribute the dishonesty morass to others. But that’s too simplistic. It is often disconcerting to hear the truth and it’s difficult to see our leaders as flawed humans. But if we want more honesty, we will have to find ways to live with some discomfort. To borrow from the philosophical wit of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This program aired on October 29, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.



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