Optimal Illusion

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Politicians lie, but most people don't understand why. On bended knees, politicians beg us to make an intimate commitment to them. We all know that intimacy demands honesty. Think of the high price of being caught lying to a spouse.  But intimacy also demands concealment and outright lying. Think of the high cost of telling a spouse exactly what you think all the time. In any kind of intimate relationship the cost of both lying and telling the whole truth shoots way up.

During this election season I've heard two big lies about politicians that we can no longer afford to tell. One lie is people saying that politicians should never lie, and since they're all liars, the heck with them and politics into the bargain. Don't vote. It just encourages them. The whole political process is disgusting. We're too pure to give it any attention.

The other lie is people saying politicians lie all the time. So what? It's a competition, and the stronger politician wins by lying better. Yeah, our candidate lies, but so does yours. All lies are equally bad so you've got nothing on us. It's all part of the power game. Stop whining that our guy is winning by lying.

In truth, politicians have to lie. Absolutely honest candidates only win elections in blockbuster comedies, not in real life and especially in scary complex times like ours. So don't be a purist.

And don't be a cynic either. All political lies are not created equal. Lying more frequently and self-servingly should keep a politician you out of office. We want politicians who cultivate optimal illusion, lying where it benefits us in the long run, and honesty where we can't afford to kid ourselves.


Rant all you want over beers about the lying politicians, but come Election Day, sober up, and think carefully about which candidates practice optimal illusion, lying where it helps rather than harms. And then, please, get out and vote.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman teaches rhetoric at the University of San Francisco.