Judging Lies

Every politician lies. 

This fundamental truth is one of the few things all political commentators agree on. Lying is commonplace, tactful, and even sometimes considered the right thing to do. It is a tool of deception that even those deceived will occasionally respect, while voters will use the dishonestly as a cudgel against the party they dislike, rarely considering the dishonesty of their own allegiances. 

But just because everyone lies, does that make everyone equally a liar? Would a person who lies once be the same as a person who pathologically lies? Would a stance reliant on dishonesty equal a stance that does not, but who’s presentation was lied about to put it forward? 

This question has long vexed me, not because I do not have a ready answer, but because it is hard to explain to others why it is not really even a close question for me anymore when I look at political positions. For me it is clear, through scale, goal, context, prevalence and role, who earns the title “liar” and who is only occasionally dishonest. But how?

Let’s take a look at the five categories mentioned and maybe someone in the comments can distill it into a much more concise reasoning.


Simply put, there is lying about what you said at a party, and there is lying about embezzling 30 million dollars from sick children. The scale of the lie matters in judgement, because while you are being dishonest about your own words in the former, you are harming many people in the latter. Dishonesty on the personal scale simply doesn’t stack up to dishonesty on the societal scale. So when a politician is known for fibbing about themselves versus fibbing about the impact of their policies on others, it matters.

President Clinton lied about having an affair. It was a personal scale, between him, his wife and his affair partner. It’s complicated by it also being from a position of power, but it is otherwise inconsequential to the nation as a whole. 

President Trump lied about the impact of the Coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of people died whom scientists have shown would not have if they were given the truthful information and the government had acted accordingly. 


Why lie? Are you lying because you understand that many people will twist the truth and that will undercut your program, or are you lying because the actual truth stands fundamentally against your goals? Neither are good, but a lie meant to protect the truth is better than a lie meant to attack the truth.

For example, Vice President Al Gore presented climate change’s worst possible outcomes and progress in an effort to get people to pay attention to this vital issue. He plausibly knew that they weren’t the most likely outcomes, but also knew that presenting the facts directly would often cause people to dismiss it, given their lack of knowledge over what a few degrees change would actually do. The goal was to get people to acknowledge the truth that climate change was a serious issue.

On the other hand we have Senator Jim Inhofe, who brought a snowball into Congress to argue that since there was snow, there was no climate change impact. It was meant entirely to derail any discussion of impact of climate change by noting that there was still snow, so it couldn’t (in his mind) be all that bad. It was an attempt to hide the truth, to attack it, by presenting something that didn’t even honestly address the premise.  


Context can make a statement true or untrue, even if the intent or even the actual claim a person made was the opposite. 15 people being shot out of a population of 20 is a serious problem that needs immediate attention; 15 people out of 20,000,000 somewhat less. Someone claiming it is a problem is telling the truth, but context can make that claim more or less potent. 

For example, President Obama made a claim that under his ACA, no one would lose access to the doctor of their choice. It turned out that after the legislation was processed and altered, insurance companies refused to go along with many parts of it and thus this was not the case for many people. Additionally, many plans did not meet up with the (even then) standards for being a legal insurance, and so more people “lost” their plans. While Obama intended the truth, in context he was found to be lying, or oversimplifying, and so people found his statement to be dishonest.

On the other side we have President Trump claiming to have won the election in every state, on every level, with unprecedented voter fraud being the only reason he lost by 8 million votes. To protect this lie, he built a narrative that states illegally changed their voting process (they did not), that millions of people voted illegally (they did not), that dozens of voting count locations engaged in illegal activity (they did not) and that a recount would prove him right (it did not). While the context was also disproved, those who continue to support him cite the context he fabricated as something that turns an obviously dishonest claim into the truth. 


How often someone lies speaks to their credibility, or the chance you will believe something they say without full verification. Since no one has time to check every claim uttered, credibility matters to any honest conversation. Thus those who lie only a few times tend to have more, despite being dishonest sometimes, than one who is known to lie, or be hypocritical. 

As a Senator, President Joe Biden pushed against the hypothetical appointment of a Supreme Court Justice four months from Election Day, stating that consideration should wait until after the election. Specifically he stated that during an election season one should not be considered, but one could be made directly after the election, still within the term of the current president. He encouraged the parties to work together to find consensus candidates, and reject volatile candidates such as Robert Bork, who was widely considered the next up. As Vice President, Biden supported Obama’s selection of Merrick Garland for SCJ a year before election day, though the primaries were already well under way. This was considered by some to be hypocritical to his 1992 speech. 

One of his critics, Mitch McConnell, called it the “Biden rule” despite there being no such rule or precedent and despite it going against the text of the Constitution, and abdicated his duty to consider ANY nominee from President Obama for a year. He then turned around and confirmed a nominee for SCJ while voting in the general election was ongoing, not four years later. The hypocrisy not once but twice (McConnell supported any nominee in 1992 no matter the timeline) makes his dishonesty far more egregious.


Are lies meant to support a policy, or do they form the core of it? If your policy is meant to help people gain economic support, you may lie about some funding for it that makes it more palatable. However, you also have situations in which you tell people your policy is for economic support, while any analysis of it shows that to be at best a by-product. The role of your lie matters.

Elizabeth Warren was asked multiple times how she was going to pay for her policies helping education, childcare, social support and healthcare. She often would deflect any question of “would you increase taxes?” This was often done as a tactic to deny a soundbite, but it made her come off as dishonest because everyone knew that yes, taxes would go up, despite the personal cost to individuals going far done (less copays, side costs, etc). She omitted the truth to simplify the narrative.

The Republican Party pushed through a massive Tax Cut package in 2017, billed as a way to help the economically disadvantaged. Analysis of the bill have proven that to be both fallacious in intent and effect, as supply side economics has been widely disproved, most of the relief went to the top 1% of wealth owners, and much of the lower relief was set to end in 2020, while the upper relief was not. The core of the bill was a lie; this was not meant to help the economically advantaged, it was meant to reduce restrictions and tax burdens on the wealthy. 


We have to make decisions as voters, and that decision requires judgement of policy, of impact and of integrity. To me it is very obvious where the most failures are in the latter, which is why I vote the way I do. I hope this look into the five noted aspects illuminates a process I believe most people judge by, and that it takes away this idea of everyone being equal if they lie even once. We cannot continue to make decisions on such wildly inaccurate generalizations. 

Truth matters. Who you hurt by attacking the truth matters. Why you lie matters. How much you directly harm that truth matters. How often you lie matters. And how you use lies matters. 

I wonder how much it matters to you?