Sociology of Political Lying


Our thinking about political lying is very simplistic.

We typically explain political lying with one of two theories. Neither of them is very good.

Bad Theory of Political Lying #1

Moral Politicians Tell the Truth. Immoral Politicians Lie.

Bad Theory of Political Lying #2

Political Lying is Universal. Everybody Does It.

Neither of these arguments is very convincing. Public figures who are completely ethical may have compelling reasons for withholding the truth. They may be involved in diplomacy; they may be in the middle of confidential negotiations; they may be dealing with matters that involve trade or military secrets.

As for the argument that “everybody lies”, that statement is clearly not true. Newspapers which have counted the number of lies told by American politicians note a dramatic upswing in public falsehoods in the last decade.

Our understanding of political lying is generally limited by the concentration of attention, at least by American readers, on U.S. politicians only. To get a good sense of the dynamics of political lying as a whole, it helps to look at other contexts besides the American context. The different rules of these other settings help to put American lying into perspective. It also helps to look at historical data. Contemporary lying is harder to study because partisans vehemently argue for the correctness of their side of the story. Lying in earlier eras is much easier to analyze, because the historical record has pretty much revealed what statements were true and what statements were false.

A wonderful study was published last year in the American Journal of Sociology on political lying in Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Hongwei Xu and Geng Tian look at lying in the first year of the Great Leap Forward, an agricultural and industrial productivity campaign called by Mao himself. The lying that took place in 1958 was completely outrageous. Outrageous lying was widespread because there were unique and special circumstances that gave party functionaries strong motivations to lie.

Most readers’ first reactions will be that the bizarre events occurring in 1958 were so exotic and over the top, that they could have no relevance whatsoever for the garden variety political lying that we see among elected politicians in the West.  But Mao’s China is less exotic than it would first appear. The Great Lies of China in 1958 show up in contemporary American politics. The hidden causes of Chinese dishonesty replicate themselves here in a much more subtle form.

The story of the Great Leap Forward is itself outrageous. Mao Tse Tung in his previous First Five-Year Plan had accomplished tremendous gains in Chinese industrial and agricultural productivity. He decided in his Second Five-Year Plan that they would make even greater gains in productivity. It did not matter if the anticipated gains were realistic or not. Everyone had to commit to a huge increase in productivity or be branded a right-wing counter-revolutionary. Right-wing counter-revolutionaries were the kind of people Mao liked to purge.

Furthermore, it was not enough just to set an ambitious goal. You had to have the one of the most ambitious goals in China. Officials with ridiculous goals, whose goals were not as ridiculous as those of other officials that Mao knew about, were subject to being hit with the right-wing counter-revolutionary label. This started a bidding war to promise the most amazing and fantastic increases in productivity possible. Promises were made of productivity increases that were completely and totally unfeasible - - - and the officials knew these promises were unfeasible at the moment they were making them.

In China, making nonsensical promises of sky-high productivity became known as “launching a high-yield satellite”. This was called that because the official would ostensibly create a new plot of land as a satellite to a pre-existing farm. This satellite would have super-productivity. How did officials manage to make otherwise normal land look like super-high-productivity land?  Just before party authorities would come to new satellite for its official inspection – the lying officials would arrange to take grain from other plots and lay it on the ground in the satellite. Harvesters in on the charade would conspicuously reap the rice or wheat that was just “lying there” unattached to the soil. There would be a big measurement ceremony to show how much was being brought in.

This fictional wave of productivity came to sorrow quickly. Central administrators, thinking that they really did have all that rice, reduced investment in agriculture and land planted in food crops. They wanted to shift those resources towards industrial uses. China planted far less rice than it usually did and used far less fertilizer than it usually did. The result was a crashing decline in food production. There was not nearly enough grain for China’s population. The result was mass starvation. Over 15 million people died in the famines that followed the underplanting.

Xu and Tian do great stuff with this material. They have data on which government functionaries made outlandish promises and which did not. Most government officials were actually honest. The liars who made outrageous promises were concentrated in about 13% of China’s counties. In the remaining 87%, local officials played it straight and promised only what they could deliver.

So the interesting question is what distinguished the 13% of China’s counties where political officials made ridiculous promises from the 87% of counties where officials maintained their integrity.

1. Liars were in geographical areas with lots of other liars. Truth-tellers were in geographical areas with lots of other truth-tellers.

2. Liars were in political units with lots of other liars. Truth-tellers were in political units with lots of other truth-tellers.

You can see one huge principle here already. Lying was a matter of social conformity. So was truth-telling. If most of your peers were lying, you lied too. If most of your peers were playing it straight, you played it straight too. Telling political lies is a form of deviance. As such it looks very similar to other forms of deviance such as juvenile delinquency or drug abuse. Teenagers in social networks with delinquents and substance-abusers become delinquents and substance-abusers. Teenagers in social networks with clean-cut kids become clean-cut kids.

3. Lies were more often told about fertile fields than infertile fields. Claims of super-productivity are more plausible if the actual fields under discussion are actually productive. Lying is more common when the lies being told are somewhat believable.

4. Liars came from the home territories of major national Communist leaders. Liars were well connected to the top. They had social network ties to the most powerful people in China. The liars were known to those powerful people. The liars had been trained by these powerful people. The actions of the liars were visible and politically relevant. The truth-tellers were covered by a cloak of political invisibility. They had far more limited prospects of upward mobility within the Communist Party. The gatekeepers of power were not paying much attention to the provincials. If officials in minor regions wanted to give unimpressive predictions, it didn’t matter so much. The minor region officials were probably not going to be promoted anyway.

5. Lying is more common when the Boss approves. The only reason the lying existed was that Mao Tse-Tung was demanding extravagant promises of productivity increases. The Boss approved of grandiose promises. Underlings eager to please made grandiose promises. Mao Tse-Tung lived in an alternative reality. Success in Chinese politics meant internalizing that alternative reality. This of course meant lying to the Boss. If one lied to the Boss, one had to take action to make the lie as much of an actual reality as could be practically possible.

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Does any of this apply to the contemporary United States?

1. Are there political leaders who live in alternative realities, and insist that their followers share this reality?

2. Are there political leaders in places where other political leaders around them are lying and being rewarded for lying?

3. Are there people willing to provide these leaders with confirmatory data of one sort or another so that the lies sound plausible?

4. Are there politicians with ambition and strong ties to national leadership who need to lie in order to please national leadership?

If those exist, we will have political liars.

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There is however one important difference between the United States and China.

Mao Tse-Tung’s China was a dictatorship.

The United States is a democracy.

To win American elections, you have to appeal to the people.

If the people in your district live in a political fantasy,

You have to maintain those people’s fantasies if you want to be elected.

*  *  *

In China, the rot started at the top.

In the United States, the rot works both at the top and at the bottom.

A Japanese philosopher once said

“If the minds of the people are impure, the land will be impure.”

H. L. Mencken once said

“The American People deserve to get what they ask for. And they deserve to get it good and hard.”

Liars survive because they tell the lies people want to hear.

If people don’t ask for truth, they don’t get it.

For More Information

The full citation for the Xu and Tian is Xu, Hongwei and Geng Tian. 2020. “Is Lying Contagious? Spatial Diffusion of ‘High-Yield Satellites’ in China’s Great Leap Forward. American Journal of Sociology 126: 632-672.

The theory that deviant behavior comes from imitating one’s peers is called “differential association” theory. The classic statement of the position is Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressey’s Principles of Criminology. This book went through many editions and earlier versions under different titles. The fourth edition of 1947 is the most crystallized statement of the position.