Which Politicians Tell the Truth?

Whoever the next president of the United States is, he or she will confront crises that have never crossed our minds. How to respond to terrorists flying commercial jets into skyscrapers was not a campaign issue when George W. Bush campaigned, but the event defined his presidency.

The most we can do to prepare for unforeseen crises is to elect a president who has good character.

Most aspects of character are impossible to measure, but there is one important attribute that can be easily rated: truthfulness. Politicians make statements that are either true or false, and we can see how often they lie.

Politifact on Bachmann

Michele Bachmann's Politifact Scorecard as of 8/18/2011

Of course it’s not quite that simple. A politician’s truthiness will depend on which statements we evaluate, and the truthfulness of some claims can be hard to determine. Nevertheless, as a fun and informal exercise, I went to the non-partisan, Pulitzer-Prize-winning website Politifact.com today and gave it a try.

Politifact on Barack Obama

Barack Obama's Politifact Scorecard as of 8/18/2011

Politifact evaluates the truthfulness of many newsworthy statements made by public figures and rates them as you see in the illustrations here.

For most of my life, I would have assumed that politicians on the Christian Right would tell the truth more often than those damned liberals. After all, they’re Christians, right? I mean, they do what the Bible says and liberals have no moral compass at all. Right?

The data call that assumption into question.

I looked up the ratings of all the candidates for president in 2012. I threw in the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate as well as Vice President Biden for good measure.

I then subjectively divided the field into Christian Right, Secular Right and Moderate/Left.

  • In the Christian Right camp were Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and Pawlenty.
  • The Secular Right were Cain, Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Boehner, and McConnell.
  • The Moderate/Left camp consisted of all the Democrats.

If you care to quibble about some of of my assignments, feel free to do your own study and leave the results as comments to this post. You can also get my raw numbers on an Excel spreadsheet here: Politifact Scorecards 2011-08-18. I’m confident, though, that my main point will remain with any reasonable categorization.

Here’s what I found.

  • Based on the statements that Politifact rated, the most consistent truth-tellers were in Moderate/Left group and the most consistent liars were in the Christian Right. The Secular Right were in the middle.
  • The Christian Right’s statements were False or Pants on Fire 41% of the time. The Moderate/Left’s were in that range less than half that often. Yes, I know that PolitiFact rates only the statements that are provocative enough that people will want to look them up, but still…
  • The two biggest liars were two of the Christian Right’s hottest firebrands. A whopping two-thirds of Bachmann’s statements were either False or Pants on Fire. Rick Santorum’s rating was identical to hers.
  • The most truthful person on the list was our president. In fact, he and Vice President Biden (yes, plagiarist Biden) were the only ones on the list to have False/Pants on Fire percentages only in the teens, at 17% and 18% respectively.

Yes, I know that my study is very unscientific, but it does square with my general experience. It seems that when I hear a truly outrageous statement, it’s more likely to have come from the Right than from the Left. Also, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the claims that have gotten my right-leaning acquaintances really mad have turned out to be lies spread by the Right.

In a future post, I may speculate on why this study turned out the way it did. [Done, here.] Is Politifact biased? (Check them out before you answer.) Or is it really true that politicians who are known for wearing Christianity on their sleeves lie more often than those who don’t? If so, why might that be? In the meantime, what do you think?

2 responses to “Which Politicians Tell the Truth?

  1. Pingback: On Moral Vision | Path of the Beagle


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