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Fig leaves and fairy tales: political promises and the Truth-O-Meter

The Tampa Bay Times is a very fine newspaper. One of its most insightful features — indeed, a feature that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 — is its PolitiFact website. This is an independent on-line platform through which a legion of reporters and editors fact-check every statement, promise and half-hearted mumble ever made by a politician, political candidate, political party, or campaign group. In many ways this is public service journalism of the very highest standard, and what’s interesting about the website is that very often — deep intake of breath before I even dare to write these words — sometimes politicians tell the truth!

Such definitive judgements are clearly difficult and therefore a lot of political statements or promises result in a ‘mostly true’ or ‘mostly false’ conclusion that begins to tease apart the complexity of the issue being discussed. Or, put slightly differently, that there are no simple answers to complex questions that anyone can offer — be they politicians, candidates, parties, or advocacy groups. But taking to this to the top of the political tree in the United States what’s interesting about the ‘Obameter’ (which is following more than 500 promises made by President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns) is that the might of American journalism seems to conclude the following:

Promise kept — 239 (45%)
Compromise — 130 (24%)
Promise broken — 116 (22%)
Stalled — 6 (1%)
In the works — 39 (7%)
Not yet rated — 2 (0%)

Truth lie sign by geralt. CC0 via Pixabay.

Now I can already hear the mass ranks of ‘disaffected democrats’ stamping their feet and sharpening their pencils in light of any evidence that politics might actually — even in some small way — ‘work’. I’m also sure that the statistics may well contain subtle but important nuances that rotate around the fact that some promises may well be far more significant than others. But for the time being let’s just use the Truth-O-Meter as a concept that deserves further discussion, specifically in relation to how it relates to politicians, for at least three reasons.

First and foremost, the Truth-O-Meter works on the basis that politicians will always tell the truth. This is — at first glance — a fairly simple and straightforward assumption that would seem to exist (alongside motherhood, breast feeding, cuddly pets, and apple pie) in the pantheon of ‘good things’. Now I am not for one moment arguing against the centrality of political truth telling or the need for high levels of democratic accountability but I do wonder if the assumption is not — how can I put it — a little simplistic. Once in power even the most idealistic politicians will quickly realize that politics is a worldly art in terms of negotiating with rivals (within and beyond their party) and particularly when it comes to working with non-democratic regimes. Truth is and can be a difficult concept simply because politics is a messy business.

I would at this point invoke the arguments of Bernard Crick and heap praise on his In Defence of Politics (1965) but regular readers of this column know the intellectual canvas on which I write. Far better to move on to a second element of the Truth-O-Meter that democratically dubious — that ‘Promise kept’ seem to be rated above above ‘Compromise’. The immediate logic of such a position seems obvious . . . until you think about the incredible complexity and fluidity of modern politics. To be a politician is to exist in a world of ever-increasing and rarely compatible demands in a context of shrinking resources. This is the simple problem. The great beauty of democratic politics (here comes the ‘Crick moment’) is that it provides a way of squeezing collecting decisions out of a great multitude of conflicting demands. The process might not be pretty or easy for outsiders to understand but the central emphasis of the whole democratic structure is towards achieving consensus and compromise. Put slightly differently, the risk of keeping promises in an over-simplistic manner in order to please the Truth-O-Meter is that I may actually lead to decisions being made that are simply irrational and ‘bad’ or simply undemocratic and designed to appease a vocal minority.

My aim is not to defend those devilish politicians but simply to highlight that the Truth-O-Meter may — in some strange ways — end up valuing and measuring the wrong things. The stateswoman or statesman politician will be the one that stands up and says ‘I was wrong’ and reneges upon a promise or commitment made in haste or under undue pressure.

This thought brings me to my third and final point and shifts our focus across the Atlantic from the United States to the United Kingdom. With just days to go before the General Election all of the main political parties are engaging in what can only be termed a ‘promise orgy’. Money is being found for just about anything; you want a budget protected from future cuts – ‘you got it!’; you want to pay less tax – ‘you got it!’; you want to pay no tax – – ‘you got it!; you want to fill the rivers and streams of England with Cola – – ‘you got it! (This last promise was just my own personal fairy tale but you know what I mean.) To some extent the whole game of democratic politics forces politicians to over-promise but my concern in the UK is that the promises have become ridiculous and the public simply do not believe it. ‘Where exactly will the money come from?’ is the core question that has no real answer. This has been an anti-political General Election.

So please can I say to the Tampa Bay Times: keep up the good work, but it’s probably best if you don’t bring the Truth-O-Meter to the UK in the near future.

Heading image: Road sign by geralt. CC0 via Pixabay.

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