Man walks into a column, no.24: Lies

Why do we care what politicians do in their personal lives? It’s been pretty hard to avoid a sense of prurient curiosity in recent weeks, as elected representatives on both sides of the Atlantic do things they wish they hadn’t been caught doing (or been accused of being caught doing, depending on the case).

They range from the ‘clearly illegal if true’ (Andrew Bridgen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) to the ‘simply bizarre/seedy’ (Anthony Weiner sending pictures of his crotch) to the ‘do we really care’ (e.g. news today that some US politicians have modest credit card debts).

It’s easy to exclude the first category from this discussion, on the basis that we surely don’t want our lawmakers breaking the law. But what about the shades of grey? Whilst we might be interested – rightly or wrongly – in the personal life of a politician simply because they are a public figure, in the same way we might want to hear about a film star, when and why do the actions of a politician affect our judgement of their suitability to hold office?

One answer is that it’s because there should be no glaring inconsistencies between a politician’s personal decisions and their pronouncements about policy. We had versions of this with successive Labour politicians wanting a privately funded education for their beloved offspring. It’s played out in the example mentioned above of the ‘debt-ridden’ congressmen and women who are, in many cases, preaching a sermon of national debt reduction.

I don’t buy this at all. Politicians have to make decisions for the country as a whole, for the aggregation of individuals, families, communities, based on trends, forecasts, probabilities and so on. Lots and lots of different people facing very different circumstances. I don’t have a problem with a politician making a decision for their own lives based on one set of considerations and a decision for the country based on another.

The question appears to hinge on whether a politician has lied about what s/he did (and, seemingly, if they did lie, how big the untruth was and how long it lasted).

In a brilliant example of ‘you couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK’ I offer you the recent statement from an ex-porn star called – predictably – Ginger Lee saying ‘I did not sext Anthony Weiner’ and ‘any time he would take our communications in a sexual direction, I would not reciprocate’ (there’s a video of the statement here). You couldn’t make it up. The coup de grace is when Ginger finishes her statement by chiming with the general political consensus that he should resign…

…because he lied to the public and to the press for more than a week… it might’ve never turned into this if he’d told the truth… if he lied about this, I can’t have much faith in him about anything else.

Why is lying important? Politicians lie all the time, don’t they; it’s one of life’s eternal truisms? I think it boils down to this: however much we may suspect the truth, we need to believe in the illusion that our representatives are trustworthy, and wish to punish those individuals who force us to confront the ugly reality.

We are invested in the fiction because (a) politicians ask us to choose between them based on promises they make in their manifestos, and (b) we accept that a degree of secrecy is a necessary part of at least some of the policy-making process. Even in the era of freedom of information and technology-enabled mass observation, we sometimes require politicians to act in our best interests without much oversight. And that’s why we need to believe that they’re not a bunch of liars.