How many politicians have never lied


Stefan Marshal

To person

is Professor of Political Science at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf with a focus on "Germany's Political System". He is the spokesman for the "Politics and Communication" working group of the German Association for Political Science. [email protected]

If one looks at the current debates about the "post-factual age", one could get the impression that the political lie is a completely new phenomenon. In fact, lies are a long-running favorite in politics, just think of Watergate (1970s), the Barschel affair (1980s), the Lewinsky scandal (1990s) or the reasons for the war in Iraq (2000s). This is also illustrated by a survey from 1998: Even back then, 57 percent of those questioned in Germany supported the statement "Politicians are not afraid to twist or gloss over facts in order to win the elections". [1] And even Bismarck is ascribed the bon mot that there is never so often a lie as "before the election, during the war and after the hunt". In politics, a widespread perception, honesty plays a subordinate role - and not just since yesterday.

The fact that lies are no stranger to political communication does not seem surprising at first sight. Because political communication is first and foremost strategic communication. If one follows the sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), then the political system is not about finding truth, but about the question of power. [2] Political communication is - not only, but to a large extent also - power communication that serves to assert oneself against others. As far as the field of political communication is, the field of political lies can be so wide, depending on who is lying, who is being lied to, in what context and, above all, for what purpose.

A wide variety of communicative acts can be classified under "lies". The Philosophical Dictionary defines "lie" as "a statement calculated on the basis of deception, which conceals or disfigures what the person making the statement about the relevant facts or knows differently than he says". [3] That says nothing about the moral evaluation. First of all, the lie, including the one in politics, is nothing more and nothing less than an act of speech, a language game. Lying can even be described as an "art". [4] Only in a second step does the question arise whether and under what conditions lies become a problem. The context of the lie, in this case politics and democracy, plays a central role.

Higher Morality of Political Lies?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) answered the question of whether there are good lies and bad lies. He opposed the justification of lies on principle, be it in politics or elsewhere, and spoke out vehemently and across the board against any excusability of lies, even if they can avert great harm. [5] According to him, liars violate the social imperative that recognizes that everyone has a right to the truthfulness of the other. With regard to politics, Kant said: "Although the sentence: Honesty is the best policy, contains a theory that, alas! very often contradicts: this is also the theoretical: Honesty is better than politics, infinitely above all objection, yes the inevitable condition of the latter. "[6]

This rigid position has been clearly opposed, in particular by the philosopher and publicist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). She sharply criticized the US government's attempts to cover up and deceive during the Vietnam War, but at the same time argued that the lie was an indispensable, even a necessary part of politics. Their central argument was that the essence of politics is the dispute between opinions and the finding of compromises. Truths, however, do not allow for a discussion of opinions. Political discourse is stifled with the claim to truth; "From the point of view of politics, truth is despotic" because it denies the right to other opinions. Arendt argued that "any claim to absolute truth that pretends to be independent of people's opinions puts the ax to the roots of all politics and the legitimacy of all forms of government". [7] The liar, on the other hand, does not block the political process, but makes it possible in the first place.

Arendt saw action as the second essential characteristic of politics. This is geared towards the future and strives to overcome, change and ultimately destroy the current situation. The mere proclamation of the truth merely solidifies what already exists. "For the action that decides how to proceed, facts are by no means necessary." The lie is pure action because it seeks to change that which is. Politics has the important task of removing and destroying the old in order to gain space for new action. The lies contribute to this. "Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues because in fact it has little to contribute to actual political business, the change in the world and the circumstances in which we live." [8]

As early as the 16th century, the philosopher and politician Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) formulated an approach to justify political lies that seems to free rulers from any moral restrictions. They are allowed to lie, cheat, break promises and deliberately deceive their subjects. But in doing so, they behave quite morally. "You have to understand it in such a way that a prince, and especially in newly established rule, cannot do everything that people think is good, but must often violate loyalty, gentleness, humanity and religion in order to maintain the state." ] In doing such an injustice - and Machiavelli explicitly called the prince's actions accordingly crime or "evil" - he is pursuing a higher purpose: the raison d'être, the cohesion of the state and the preservation of social order. The state's welfare forces the prince to behave in a way that the individual should not behave. The ethics of the office thus dominates over the ethics of the individual. By lying, the ruler violates individual morality, but thereby serves a higher morality of the state.

At this point, the ideal-typical distinction made by the sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility can be added: According to Weber, the ethicist behaves as his absolute ethics suggests. However, when making a decision, the responsible ethicist takes the foreseeable consequences of his actions into account. Transferred to the lie: Truthfulness is not one of the guiding principles of a responsibility ethicist if this leads to problematic consequences in a specific case. Weber himself mentions the following constellation: An absolute ethics could suggest that a state must publish documents that incriminate itself in the sense of the obligation to truth. "The politician will find that in success the truth is not promoted, but surely darkened by abuse and unleashing of passion." [10] Lies and secrecy could thus be required, truthfulness and unrestricted openness again be irresponsible.

Weber and Machiavelli thus distinguish the ethics of the private person from the ethics of the political office holder. What may be desired by the individual in his role as a spouse or friend, for example, must not necessarily be expected of the individual as a politician. The political functionary can be faced with the situation of having to weigh competing moral values ​​against one another. And then it may be that the lie has a higher moral value.

(Not) a license to lie

So are lies allowed in politics? Under certain circumstances, lies can be justifiable, for example if they prevent significant damage. But while the systematic lie is quite systemically relevant for a dictatorship, a culture of lies in a democracy can become a substantial problem. Not only because good politics must be based on facts in order not to lead to wrong and harmful decisions. Furthermore, the political lie runs counter to several core democratic elements: trust, control and transparency.

Modern democracy is always representative democracy. A large part of the decisions are made by political representatives, representatives. Representative democracy thrives on the trusting relationship between these representatives on the one hand and the citizens on the other. Political representatives are not called political representatives in English for nothing trustees, so "confidants". Those represented must have the trustees trust that they will effectively contribute their interests to the political process. Trust is fed by assumed credibility. And in fact, credibility is the characteristic of a politician that achieves very high to the highest desirability values ​​in surveys. [11]

A culture of lies threatens to undermine this relationship of trust between the representative and the represented. The assumption that politicians lie and thus become unpredictable for the citizens puts a strain on trust. Loss of confidence in turn leads to political alienation and apathy - and ultimately to the fact that the population no longer has the necessary support for the system. In 1998, 57 percent of those questioned linked their expectation that politicians would lie with the statement "That shows that something is wrong in our state". [12] The feeling of being lied to damages political culture and endangers the stability of democracy in the long term.

In representative democracy, however, not only trust, but also institutionalized healthy mistrust plays an important role. Separation of powers, elections, checks and balances - With a complex form of mutual monitoring of the institutions as well as the control by the citizens it is guaranteed that power is not abused. Political lies can undermine and undermine these control mechanisms. Systematic dishonesty hinders the effective mutual critical observation of the political institutions among one another. It can make it difficult or impossible to control the political elite. If there is incorrect accounting, if responsibility is denied, if dishonest statements are made, political personnel cannot be adequately held accountable - without transparency there can be no control.

Transparency is also the prerequisite for meaningful and targeted participation of the population in the political process. Democracy and representative democracy require that citizens get involved - not just by voting, but in a variety of other ways, be it in the parties or in associations. The political lie can prevent participation through misinformation or lead it into the wrong channels and dead ends. It can objectively devalue the commitment of the citizens and deepen the gap between the political elite and those willing to participate. The problem becomes particularly vivid when it comes to elections. Does it go in the sense of retrospective voting You need appropriate knowledge to decide on the basis of political failures and successes from the previous electoral term which party or which candidate you want to vote for. [13] Also in the sense of promissory representation, So when the electorate votes on future political decisions, they need to know what they are doing by voting. [14] A lying election campaign therefore damages the quality of political participation.

Transparency is therefore the prerequisite for citizens to participate politically and freely form their opinions. Or in Hannah Arendt's words: "Freedom of expression is a farce when information about the facts is not guaranteed." [15]