Donald Trump has brought new attention to the mendacity of politicians. Both major national newspapers have reported tallies of Trump's false and misleading claims. On November 14, 2017, The Washington Post reported that in the 298 days that President Trump has been president, he had made 1,628 false or misleading claims, telling them at a rate of nine per day in the thirty-five days prior to November 14. Trump, the Post reported, has made fifty false or misleading claims “that he as repeated three or more times.” The Post also catalogued scores of “flip-flops” from Trump. In general, from 2016 into 2017, journalistic political fact-checking has surged in frequency and scope. Newspapers and magazines regularly run articles, columns, and features on Trump's record-breaking lying.
Though the frequency and blatancy with which Trump lies is exceptional, he is not the only elected political leader active today whose mendacity has been documented. Catalogues exist for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Trump cabinet members and White House spokespeople have also come under scrutiny for their untruthfulness.
Clearly, not all mendacity is of equal concern. Some mendacity is not even troubling at all. Small white lies told to protect another's feelings about a trivial matter are at one end of the scale, while serial deception to defraud investors out of their life savings or to sustain two families, each kept secret from the other, are at another. Similarly, political hype or bluster may not be troublesome, whereas lying about criminal activity or scientific fact seems clearly so. Most political mendacity falls into a middle ground. Understanding when and how middle-ground mendacity is dangerously harmful is crucial. Decrying all mendacity is overkill, yet narrowing the field is difficult. Press tallies and online databases vary in what they count as lies. Entries run the gamut of fibs to whoppers, fudges to half-truths or falsehoods. Yet even calibrated catalogues of mendacious statements from politicians do not identify when and how mendacity from politicians should alarm us. Fact-checkers spot mendacity and sometimes put it on a scale of deceptiveness, but this is not the same as identifying harmful mendacity.
With mendacity in politics receiving so much attention, it is important to figure out which mendacity is dangerous and why. Lawyers, I will demonstrate, have a particular expertise in parsing mendacity. They can and should put that expertise to use in identifying the political mendacity that is particularly problematic for the health of representative democracy.
Duquesne Law Review, Vol. 56, Issue 2, 125.
Scholarly Commons Citation
Feldman, Heidi Li, "What Lawyers Can and Should Do about Mendacity in Politics" (2018). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2566.