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(Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Why can’t our political leaders be honest with us? How can Governor Mitt Romney declare Obamacare is unwarranted government interference in our lives when he promoted a nearly identical policy in Massachusetts? And why doesn’t President Barack Obama level with us that political opposition made it impossible for him to ban assault weapons?

It would be easy to blame the fact-twisting that characterizes political campaigns on the flawed character of the candidates. But the epidemic of less-than-truthful rhetoric is too widespread to be simply a character issue. It is we, the electorate, who make it hard for politicians to be honest. We say we want honesty, but we don’t behave that way because we want our candidates to be winners. In other words, we value the outcome more than the process.

The conundrum is that while we want candidates to be honest, we punish them when they actually tell us what they think.

Our judgments are colored by perceptual bias, especially when we are judging others with whom we disagree. We see their failure as a reflection of their personal limitations and we downplay the context. So, whether the issue is the slow economic recovery or the death of American diplomats in Libya, we attribute failure to a person, in this case, President Obama. No matter how difficult the situation the president inherited or how foggy the conditions of war, failure is attributed to him — particularly by those who oppose him. The challenger’s job is to make the failure as stark as possible.

We don’t make it easy for candidates to admit error. An admission becomes fodder for criticism and we give them little credit for honesty. Perhaps Governor Romney could extricate himself from the dilemma he faces over the Affordable Care Act if he just said that he had made a mistake supporting the Massachusetts plan. But doing so would likely enrage his supporters and provide ammunition to his opponents.

The honesty conundrum is that while we want candidates to be honest, we often punish them when they actually tell us what they think. John Silber, the late president of Boston University who ran for governor of Massachusetts, scuttled his candidacy after a journalist asked him about his strengths and weaknesses. He responded that his strengths were that he was “competent” and “honest.” But he refused to list his weaknesses, dismissively saying, “You find the weakness.” It was a candid, but impolitic moment that ultimately hurt him.

We have met the enemy and he is us.
– Cartoonist Walt Kelly in his Pogo comic strip

We might encourage more authentic political discourse if we alter our behavior and begin to reward honesty. Doing so isn’t simple because it means we’ll have to learn how to wrestle with complexity: policies that have both good and bad aspects, individuals who have strengths and weaknesses.

Part of the process involves putting ourselves in the leader’s shoes. If we want more honesty from candidates, we need to be better at accepting their explanations for success and failure, much as we would do if we were assessing our own lives.

We need to accept our leaders as imperfect human beings. But in a “gotcha” era, fueled by the amphetamine of social media, there is little room for forgiveness. Not every statement, decision, and policy will be perfect. Perhaps the leader who has made and learned from mistakes will be more effective than one who has never faced such challenges

Our presidential candidates appear to agree on very little except that the coming election is important. That the campaign has focused less on substantive policy and has devolved into jousting about differing narratives demeans the candidates and undermines our capacity to respond to a host of internal and external challenges.

It may be comforting to attribute the dishonesty morass to others. But that’s too simplistic. It is often disconcerting to hear the truth and it’s difficult to see our leaders as flawed humans. But if we want more honesty, we will have to find ways to live with some discomfort. To borrow from the philosophical wit of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Tags: Election 2012

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  • MrLongleg

    Just for the record. Romney is challenged by the fact checkers far more often than Obama. So the people voting for him must be far more paranoid or he has an issue with being honest. He is willing to win at all cost and will tell you any lie in your face as long as you vote for him. I am disgusted by that…

    • http://twitter.com/Blake_Mitchell Blake Mitchell

      “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”–Romney pollster Neil Newhouse

  • Bob Silverberg

    Romney told an audience that Chrysler was sending ALL Jeep production to China. Not only is that an outright lie, but Chrysler is actually ADDING 1100 workers to build Jeeps in the United States. Why isn’t the press pressing him on lies like this ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.graham.1614460 David Graham

    Why do politcians need to be honest, since those (the media) who once had the immense responsibility of exposing their lies, have, for the most part, ceased doing so.

  • NamePick

    “It is we, the electorate, who make it hard for politicians to be honest.”

    Well, EXCUSE ME!

  • Steven

    Truth, opinion blogs and dishonest politics … Does anyone seek truth anymore? Politicians are dishonest because no one holds them accountable to the truth. Ideally, we could pass this responsibility along to the press, news and media outlets, but they lost their objectivity decades ago. It is now the responsibility of the people, ‘We the People’, to seek the truth, ‘We hold these Truths’ and force our politicians to abide by them. Opinion blogs like this one, that favor one politician over the other, albeit subtly, are the new form of lies …, they appear in the format of ‘news’, and provide some factual data to make them look truthful, yet subtly push the author’s opinions on each candidate.

  • Isobel Clinton

    We didn’t reject Silber for having a “candid moment” with the affable local journalist, Liz Walker (black and a woman–Silber didn’t seem too comfortable in general with either form of humanity) who was interviewing him: did you live here then? We rejected him, pretty much en masse, for being bizarrely and abruptly rude and thin-skinned. We thought, what kind of governor will he be if he can’t handle a friendly reporter asking him a predictable question? I don’t understand where the evidence is in this article for voters not liking honesty.

  • http://everydayscholar.tumblr.com/ Adam Mandeville

    I agree that some dishonesty has come from the cable news soundbite and live-Tweeted era of the news, but in this election, Romney’s lies are blatant pandering and a willingness to say anything to get elected. Maybe I’m too liberal, but Obama and the Democrats main untruthful statement is about how Romney’s tax policies would eliminate deductions for the middle class. In that particular case, the lie is a simplification of a non-partisan tax policy research center trying to fill in the gaps in Romney’s tax plan. While citizens perhaps burden candidates with the need to lie about certain positions, Romney is trying to fit himself into a mold for which he is ill-suited: a lifelong conservative.

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