Point Blank: Four reasons why Politicians lie

Patrick Sikana

Patrick Sikana

By Patrick Sikana

Let me begin by making two related sweeping statements – knowing very well I’m about to annoy many powerful people: Firstly, I want to say that the first duty of a politician (in an electoral democracy) is to get elected to office. Unless they get elected they cannot do all the good things that they promise. However, the only the way to get elected (with very few exceptions) is for them to get their hands dirty.

So, my second sweeping statement is that whoever manages to get elected to a political position is an accomplished liar. Lying, along with a capacity for backbiting, smoke-screening, and double-dealing, are, in my opinion, actual job qualifications for politicians.

So, why do politicians believe they can lie when their lies are so easily uncovered? Here are four reasons.

1.    The first reason politicians lie is because people don’t want to hear the truth. People want to hear what they want to hear. When two candidates are running and one of them tells the truth and the other says what the public wants to hear, the one who says what the public wants to hear wins the election. Thus, it seems there is an unwritten rule which politicians world over religiously observe:If you want to win an election, you better start lying, because the guy who’s telling you the truth doesn’t have a chance. Remember how President Sata told us he would kick out the Chinese from Zambia once elected? We knew no country can actually do away with Chinese presence but the promise resonated well with our frustration of seeing the Chinese selling chickens at Soweto, digging out our copper and doing everything in between. And the constitution in 90 days? Oh please! From Chiluba, to Mwanawasa, to Banda we knew too well there was something spooky about the constitution. But he struck the right note and we were smitten! He told us what we wanted to hear so we rewarded him with the vote. So somebody out there tell me: Why should politicians be the purveyors of bad news (and decrease the likelihood of getting people’s votes) when they can tell us fairy tales with happy endings (which, of course, everyone wants) and come out the victor?

Politicians know their followers will believe them, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Politicians and their adherents live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. There exists an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering. The content of the lies is also usually red meat for the politicians’ ravenous base who are only too happy to chew on it for days on end. If you are doubting this, just go on social media today and see how PF zealots are willing to defend their leader, with their lives, despite the pedigree of lies they’ve generated since 2011. The same can be said about UPND, MMD or NAREP cadres. Political parties are self-perpetuating bubbles. The sweeter the lies, the bigger the bubble.

The third reason is that politicians now have faithful lying mates, the media and the internet. These two allies never forget. One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence. Research has shown, for example, that people are more likely to believe unsubstantiated rumours about a political candidate they oppose when read in social media and on blogs. Politicians know this and they use it to their advantage.

If a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true. It is not a stretch to understand why people would believe something if they hear it enough. People expect that lies will be disproved and fade away like what GBM did last week when the Post falsely reported about him being on the Copperbelt, de-campaigning the PF.  But if the lies continue to be heard, people assume, then they must be true. Case in point: The statement attributed to a UPND member who said UPND will always be ruled by a Tonga. If I had not listened to that conversation myself by now I would have believed that is exactly what he said because the lie has been repeated in the media frequently enough to morph into some kind of “truth.”

Ultimately, politicians lie because, due to the reasons above, the cost/benefit ratio for lying is in their favour. Politicians run this calculation when they create or shift a damaging narrative, attack an opponent, or respond to indefensible claims against them. I’m going to assume that most politicians know when they are lying (if not, we not only have a bunch of narcissists in government, but also a whole lot of sociopaths).

So, politicians lie when they believe that dishonesty is the best policy for getting elected. In a perfect world politicians wouldn’t lie as much as they do now. But when the voters elect politicians who lie over those who tell the truth then the voters shouldn’t be surprised when they get caught being less that truthful. So in order for politicians to tell the truth, we, the voters are going to have to stop punishing honesty.

We are going to have to be ready to face the truth and the hard decisions that the politicians have to face in passing fair laws that are good for the people. Some issues are tough issues and require tough choices and require a solution that is more complicated than a “more-money-in-your-pocket” slogan. So when someone running for office tells you that poverty in Zambia is a real issue and it’s not going away on it’s own, listen to him.