Houyhnhnms, the noble talking horses in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” had no word for “lie.” They did not engage in the petty subterfuge of politics and didn’t need a word to signify it. The closest they could come is the locution “to say the thing which is not.” But lying is much more complex than saying something that isn’t the case. A genuine lie—a lie in the moral sense—must be intended to deceive, and must be expressed to someone to whom the truth is owed. You aren’t lying if you misstate a statistic without intending to, or if you give a fake name to a prying stranger on the subway.
In today’s political sphere, the word “lie” is applied to all sorts of things that aren’t that. Bush administration officials weren’t just wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; they “lied” about it. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) wasn't content simply to disagree with President Obama’s assertion in 2009 that his health care proposal would not cover illegal immigrants; he had to shout “You lie!”
“To lie” has come to mean “to say something I strongly disagree with.” In 1988 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole demanded that Vice President George Bush “stop lying about [his] record,” and that word was still sufficiently uncommon to generate surprise and controversy. Since then it has become numbingly routine. Marco Rubio’s complaint about Ted Cruz was typically intense: “He’s lied about my record on Planned Parenthood, he’s lied about my position on marriage, he’s lied about his own record on immigration.” Indeed, almost every candidate in this year’s presidential primaries (Ben Carson was a notable exception) accused at least one other candidate of lying. And so most campaigns go, on the left and right.
What the L-word’s promiscuous users don’t realize—or deliberately ignore—is that the language of politics does not lend itself to uncomplicated judgements about truth versus falsehood. In most cases, political language isn’t meant to convey information at all, but to preserve careers or avoid trouble; it isn’t aimed at persuasion but electoral victory. Claims made in the political sphere tend to be obtuse and vapid, neither wholly true nor wholly false. There is plenty of disingenuousness in politics, and lots of grossly tendentious factual claims, but those aren’t quite the same as lies.
Allegations of dishonesty, moreover, make debate impossible. You can’t discuss anything with someone who calls you a liar: The accusation destroys the good faith that makes discussion, even heated discussion, possible. Hence parliamentary rules strictly forbid the accusation of deliberate untruth—not because anyone thinks politicians cannot tell a lie, but because once the accusation is allowed into debate, debate is at an end and the whole affair descends into heckling. Savvy politicians have usually found a way around the rule (there is an old joke about a member of parliament being forced to withdraw his remark that half the cabinet are liars. “I withdraw the remark,” he says. “Half the cabinet are not liars”). But the prohibition is a valuable and necessary one.
All this brings us to a serious problem. After abusing the word “lie” and its cognates for decades, we are faced with a choice between two pathologically dishonest candidates—and we have no word strong enough to call them what they are. Donald Trump’s lies are wanton and preposterous, whereas Hillary Clinton’s are more obviously calculated to win approval, but both have exhibited a tendency to say things that are manifestly and peremptorily false.
Consider only the most egregious instances. Trump insists that “thousands” of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey on 9/11, a shockingly stupid invention from which he nonetheless refused to back down; that he warned the U.S. government of Osama bin Laden’s danger before 9/11, though there is no record of this instance of his sagacity; that the 9/11 hijackers’ wives “knew exactly what was going to happen,” though the hijackers were almost all unmarried; that the Bush White House tried to silence his opposition to the Iraq War, though there was no opposition from Trump to silence.
Clinton’s career offers a similarly dizzying array of bogus claims—that she had known nothing about the firing of White House travel office employees in 1993, though she had orchestrated it; that she deplaned in Bosnia under sniper fire; that she was named for Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest when she was 5; that she was a fierce critic of NAFTA “from the very beginning” when in fact she worked to get it passed; that she “did not email any classified material to anyone,” though of course she did, many times.
These and similar claims by both candidates are not exaggerations or embellishments or just twisted renditions of the facts. They’re . . . well, they’re the commonest word in politics. And so not much of anything.
Barton Swaim is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”