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.
“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.
After abusing the word “lie” and its cognates for decades, we are faced with a choice between two pathologically dishonest candidates.
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.
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.”