The Politics of Lying: Implications for Democracy

By Lionel Cliffe; Maureen Ramsay et al. | Go to book overview

4
Explanations: Deception in the US Political System

Lionel Cliffe

Lying and secrecy are not exactly new phenomena in US politics. However, many observers feel that they have become more prevalent in the last half century. Certainly some major examples surfaced in this period which, moreover, became notorious: first, because they exposed hidden activities to public scrutiny; second, because they excluded not just the public from knowledge about policy, but also some of those supposedly in power.

Most cases arose in the area of foreign policy, although as Nincic ( 1992: 125) points out: ' Woodrow Wilson's admonition that government should be "all outside and no inside" has never adequately characterised U.S. external affairs.' It is admittedly hard to assemble statistical evidence that would establish the increase empirically. But the several major, infamous cases in this period do begin to make a prima facie case and will be briefly reviewed here.

However, it is possible to document the change in popular awareness of government's truthfulness. In the view of the director of a politics survey centre (quoted by Wise, 1973), in the 1960s there was a 'massive erosion of the trust the American people have in their government'. Several surveys seemed to confirm a shift from about two-thirds of people in the early 1960s stating they had a high degree of confidence in the federal government to one-third by the end of the decade. Gallop polls in 1971 showed that 69 per cent of the public felt that the Nixon administration was not telling them enough about Vietnam, percentages slightly higher than voiced about the Johnson administration. The term 'credibility gap' entered political discourse and was openly discussed by politicians: Nixon even made an issue of it in his 1968 campaign. Lying had thus become a political problem; indeed, it had become a problem for those in power, for their legitimacy had been

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