Why Do Politicians Lie—Has Post-Truth Politics Taken Over?

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Why do politicians lie? Why do we continue to support politicians, even when we know they’re lying?

Research shows that Americans will continue to support their preferred political candidates even when they know those candidates lie. Since 2016, the term “post-truth politics” has come into regular use for just this reason.

Read on to learn why politicians lie and why Americans tolerate it.

What Are Post-Truth Politics?

From Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, to George W. Bush’s misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction, Donald Trump’s record-breaking number of falsehoods, and now the heavily fabricated biography of George Santos—why do politicians lie and are Americans on a slippery slope toward an entirely post-truth political era?

The term “post-truth politics” has come into regular usage in recent years, gaining prominence in 2016, when Oxford Dictionaries declared that its word of the year was “post-truth.” In that same year, “postfaktisch” (post-factual) was named word of the year by the German Language Society. The popularity of these terms coincided with the Trump-Clinton presidential campaign in the U.S., as well as with the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of right-wing populism in Germany. 

At the heart of the concept of “post-truth politics” is the assumption that public discourse, most notably that of politicians, has become so dishonest that we can no longer even expect honesty. This raises the questions:

  • Why do politicians and other public figures lie so much?
  • Are they truly more dishonest now than in the past?
  • Why do we continue to knowingly support political figures who lie?
  • What are the dangers of post-truth politics?
  • Where do we go from here? What comes after post-truth?

In this article, we’ll explore these questions and explain how the concept of post-truth politics is intertwined with two things: political polarization and populism. 

Why Do Politicians Lie So Much?

Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says one of the reasons politicians lie so frequently, at least in America, is that they are products of a flawed political system that encourages and rewards the most arrogant candidates. He says campaigning for political office in the U.S. requires the kind of ambition that only “the most narcissistic individuals” tend to have. But do politicians lie more now than in the past? According to Ginsberg, Americans have tolerated presidential lies throughout the country’s history. He points out that Robert Kennedy once said of President Lyndon B. Johnson, “He just lies continually about everything. He lies even when he doesn’t have to lie.” 

An article in New Scientist also suggests that our politicians today may not be much more dishonest than in the past, saying “perhaps it’s just that fibs once whispered into select ears are now overheard by everyone.” So, it could just be that everything is so much more publicized today, making the lies more readily observable. Which might be a good thing, except that we also seem to increasingly accept and overlook them. Ginsberg notes that not only do we now tolerate politicians lying, we’ve come to demand it—and lying can work in a political candidate’s favor.

So, whether there’s been an objective rise in dishonesty among political leaders or not, something has certainly prompted the rise in the belief that we can no longer expect honesty from our political leaders. This is evident from the popularity of the concept of “post-truth politics.” And this rise coincides with two other related factors: the rise in populist movements and growing polarization of political beliefs. These two trends help explain why politicians so frequently lie to us, and why we continue to support them when they do

Why Are We Willing to Tolerate Politicians Lying?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked at the question of why people accept politicians who lie, and they found that there are some specific circumstances that contribute to this. One of those circumstances is the feeling of disenfranchisement. The authors of the study say that when people feel excluded from a political system that they perceive as run by “out of touch” leaders, they’ll accept lies from a politician who claims to be a champion of the “people.” This is essentially the catalyst for populist movements, such as those that grew up around both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.


Populism refers to a political position that rests on the idea of the struggle of the “common people” against the “elite.” Leaders of populist movements tend to emphasize their authenticity—their relatable nature to the common folk—and take an anti-establishment stance. For example, Donald Trump’s cry of “draining the swamp” (a metaphor for ousting establishment politicians from Washington, D.C.) was populist rhetoric, implying that he aligned with the American people in his intention to rid the government of corrupt elites.  

However, leaders like Trump and Johnson don’t actually come from “common” backgrounds, nor have their lifestyles ever reflected or connected with the everyday lives of working and middle-class populations. So, in order to appeal to this demographic, some discursive sleight of hand is necessary. But the public is willing to suspend disbelief because they want someone who’s authentic more than someone who’s honest. And in fact, when we perceive the establishment as being associated with an “intellectual elite” that emphasizes objectivity and evidence, we might even prefer someone who lies.

In a 2016 CNN interview, Jeffrey Lord, an American author and political strategist who served in the Reagan administration, called fact-checking an “out-of-touch, elitist media-type thingand claimed “I don’t think people here in America care. What they care about [is] what the candidates say.”

So one factor influencing the post-truth nature of politics is that, in our desire for a leader who’s authentic and on our side, we may be willing to support someone who twists the truth. 

Political Polarization

In addition to wanting a leader who challenges the establishment, we face the challenge of a growing divide between political parties, particularly in a two-party system like America’s. The digital world gives us unlimited information at our fingertips, and we don’t always know how to determine the veracity of that information. Further, social media algorithms create echo-chambers within which our beliefs and biases are reinforced in an endless loop. This has led to increasing political polarization between right- and left-wing positions, to the point where our very identities are inextricable from our political affiliations. 

And that means that we’ll double down to support the candidate who aligns with our political identity. A study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people are more forgiving of a politician’s lies when they believe the general stance of that politician is morally right. So, for example, someone who holds anti-abortion views will be more likely to support a pro-life candidate, even if they know the candidate promotes factually inaccurate beliefs about abortion. In cases like this, researchers say lies can be perceived as acceptable, because they’re a means to a greater good. 

And, since partisanship is so much a part of our identities, we’ll also accept a lying politician simply because it gets our party elected. For example, one may reason that, to a Democrat, a Democratic candidate who lies is still preferable to any Republican, since it will give the Democratic Party more control of the government.

But what are the consequences for society when we accept leaders who lie? 

The Dangers of Post-Truth Politics

Does it really matter whether George Santos is Jewish or Catholic, or if Bill Clinton had an affair with an intern? We could argue that when politicians lie, these kinds of indiscretions have little effect on someone’s ability to govern. But a post-truth political world can also potentially create a gravely dangerous situation. Oxford scholar Nayef Al-Rhodan says political lies are more than just unethical—they can lead to global destabilization. He calls for viewing post-truth politics as an “emerging security challenge, in need of stern responses.” 

Al-Rhodan points out that today’s widespread misinformation via the internet is like a modern manifestation of movements that arose in the early days of the printing press. Spreading slander and propaganda via pamphleteering in the 1600s was a direct contributor to both the English civil war and the American war of independence. Today the consequences could be devastating on a global scale. The invasion of Iraq by the U.S., resulting from misinformation promulgated by George W. Bush, resulted in over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and over 4,000 deaths of U.S. service members. If nuclear weapons had been a factor, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

Why Do Politicians Lie—Has Post-Truth Politics Taken Over?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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