I have two main goals in addressing the question of why the right lies so often. The first is to satisfy my curiosity as a philosopher who teaches ethics, epistemology, and critical thinking. While there is little point in trying to get the liars of the right to stop lying, my second goal is to encourage honest people on the right to look at their claims critically.
What I am asking of the honest folks of the right is to act in accord with Ben Shapiro’s famous saying: “facts don’t care about your feelings.” If you are an honest person on the right and you believe this, then you should engage with the claims made by yourself and your fellows in accord with this professed view: hold your feelings in check and consider what the evidence supports. There is also the popular YouTube pastime of destroying the liberals with facts and logic. Consistency requires that honest folks on the right subject the claims of the conservatives to the same treatment. Or, rather, to the treatment promised in the memes: to check the claims rigorously in accord with the principles of critical thinking and to make use of non-fallacious logic. The truth can withstand scrutiny and good reasoning can hold up when assessed. As such, if an honest person on the right is sure that a claim made by their fellows is true, then they should not fear subjecting it to rigorous and objective evaluation. Likewise, if an argument made by a fellow conservative is strong (or valid), then you should not hesitate to put it to the test.
Before getting to the substantial content, I need to pre-empt some likely fallacious attacks. One likely attack is to respond by saying “what about the left?” or “What about Stalin? He lied all the time!” This is the rhetorical strategy and fallacy known as “whataboutism.”A second likely response is to say that everyone lies, that the practice is a common one. This is, obviously enough, just the fallacy of common practice. A third likely response is to assert that the left also lies and so they are just as bad as the right. This is a false equivalence. To avoid straw man attacks, I must make it clear that I am not claiming that the right always lies or that the left never lies. My claim is that lying is common on the right and my inquiry is into why this is the case. Feel free to destroy the lying left with facts and logic in your own blog or video.
The first step is providing a definition of “lying.” While one could discuss the fine nuances of the concept at length, my discussion only requires a general and intuitive plausible definition: lying is intentionally asserting that a claim is true when one believes it is false. I understand this is not a perfect definition of the concept, but my discussion does not hinge on any nuanced or fine distinctions. I would, of course, be happy to get into a deep discussion of the complexities of defining the concept at another time.
The second step is providing evidence that the right, under the common usage of the term, lies often. A good place to start is at the top with President Trump. To be fair to the right, a good case can be made that Trump is not committed to conservative ideology—he has shifted his political affiliations often and one can easily imagine a world in which Trump was elected as Democrat. But the American right has generally embraced Trump and he has embraced them. Trump is an epic level liar and his lies are thoroughly documented.
The folks at Fox News lie regularly, as the Daily Show showed back in 2015 with their “50 Fox News lies in 6 seconds.” The dishonesty of Fox News is well documented. This is important because Fox News can be justly seen as the defining news of the right.
A key area to consider is what can be called the brain of the right—the self-proclaimed intellectuals and thinkers of the right. The best known are Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. There are also folks like Steven Crowder, Lauren Southern, Sargon of Akkad and Stefan Molyneux. The YouTube intellectuals of the right are rather interesting in that they do what politicians and pundits generally do not: they lay out their views at length, they endeavor to argue for their views, and they purport to offer evidence for their claims. While these folks generally do not hold political offices or positions of power, they present and defend the views of the right—as such, they are the ones that can most fairly be engaged in intellectual combat.
There is an entire YouTube industry of left-wing thinkers who meticulously go through the claims and arguments of the right-wing thinkers. The usual approach is the same used by professional scholars: checking the sources and assessing the reasoning. One common occurrence is that the sources used in the right-wing video are often either problematic (biased) or clearly misused (the right-winger is wrong about what the source shows). One example of this is Shaun’s look at Lauren Southern’s claims about the great replacement conspiracy theory. As another example, the sarcastic Some More News goes through Ben Shapiro’s claims about systemic racism and notes the lies. While one might be tempted to use an ad hominem and dismiss the lefty critics on the grounds that they are lefties, the competent critics follow the good practices of citing sources, referencing the original in context, and assessing arguments in accord with the standards of good logic. As such, one can engage these works and check their claims and reasoning. In general, the right-wing thinkers seem to routinely make a significant number of false claims. These videos are all available on YouTube and you can go through each one yourself, checking the claims and assessing the logic. Destroying is an option, if you are into that.
The third step is to answer the question of why the right lies so often. One easy and obvious answer is that it works: conservatives seem to be more susceptible to certain lies than liberals. There are also answers to be found in the realm of psychology as to why, for example, Trump lies. But my concern here is with the rational reasons why the right engages in lying as a conscious tactic.
The first reason is that facts and reality often conflict with interests and ideology of the right. It also conflicts with their claims of success. To be more specific, the claims used to argue for the policies and views of the right are often not true—and they know it. The claims used to defend the effectiveness of these policies are also often untrue—and they know it. As Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. Two classic examples of this are the right’s notion that tax cuts pay for themselves and climate change denial. We have had numerous empirical tests of the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves over the years: you can examine the results yourself and find out that they do not. The truth of climate change has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. If the right were honest about tax cuts or climate change, they would have a difficult time making their case for their policies or “showing” that their policies are effective. Imagine if Republicans were honest about tax cuts or climate change—they would be unable to make much of public case in favor of their policies.
As another example, consider the right’s claims about voter fraud. While the right asserts that voter fraud is a problem, the evidence does not support their claim. The means they propose to combat this almost non-existent fraud are instead aimed at voter suppression. If the right were honest about the extent of voter fraud, their argument would be utterly undercut. If voter fraud is almost non-existent, there would be little reason to accept their proposals to address it.
As a final example, consider Trump’s disastrous response to COVID-19. Trump’s main response has been to lie. Bizarrely, Trump has made it clear that he would like less testing so that the United States would, falsely, look better. Trump is indeed unusual in his tendency to be honest about his dishonesty. The COVID-19 response thus serves as a paradigm example of why the right lies so often: their policies and values often conflict with reality and the only way they can claim success is often by lying.
A second reason that many on the right lie is that being honest about their values, beliefs and goals would either not win support or even repulse some people. To illustrate, being honest about the effectiveness of tax cuts and who they benefit would generally not win much support from citizens. To use a more extreme example, consider the 1981 interview with Lee Atwater in which he lays out the southern strategy. Atwater makes it clear how lying about their racism is a strategy of the right:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Lest you think that this strategy of deceit is a thing of the past, consider Trump’s recent tweet about the Suburban Lifestyle: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood……Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!” Classic Atwater.
As a final example, saying to voters that they want to suppress voters to gain an undemocratic advantage to hold onto power would not win widespread support from the public.
Thus, the right has excellent reasons to lie. The first is that their claims often clash with the facts and if they did not lie, they would have to admit they are wrong. The second is that being honest would often cause them to lose support. I did not explicitly address why the right lies about the left in this essay, perhaps that will be the subject of a later work.
Karl Young says
Curious why there don’t seem to be any comments here, As a lefty we’ve got our bullshit tropes and I don’t feel particularly holy re. extraordinary self reflection but I have to agree that the right has been in a pretty serious run and has outdone itself lately (and also agree that they have plenty of incentive, e.g. as Trump has basically admitted, if they couldn’t obfuscate how few people their economic policies benefit, they wouldn’t stand a chance in elections – though they get a lot more votes than you’d expect re. particularly American delusions like winning the lottery). But I was really looking forward to some seriously ballistic bloviating in the comments.
Michael LaBossiere says
My thought is that I am not worth engaging-fighting me would not yield much of a gain versus going after bigger fish. The fight in politics is not really over ideas, but over market share.
Michael LaBossiere says
I think that an honest moderate conservative could do very well by appealing to the voters with true claims. In a way, Biden is that guy–he’ll do his best to take us back to 2012 and will fight off the radical left of the Democrats.
Where to start with this abomination.
Let’s start here: Federal Revenue since 1990.
FY 2021 $3.86 (estimated)
FY 2020 $3.71 trillion (estimated)
FY 2019 $3.46 trillion (actual)
FY 2018 $3.33 trillion
FY 2017 $3.32 trillion
FY 2016 $3.27 trillion
FY 2015 $3.25 trillion
FY 2014 $3.02 trillion
FY 2013 $2.77 trillion
FY 2012 $2.45 trillion
FY 2011 $2.30 trillion
FY 2010 $2.16 trillion
FY 2009 $2.10 trillion
FY 2008 $2.52 trillion
FY 2007 $2.57 trillion
FY 2006 $2.41 trillion
FY 2005 $2.15 trillion
FY 2004 $1.88 trillion
FY 2003 $1.78 trillion
FY 2002 $1.85 trillion
FY 2001 $1.99 trillion
FY 2000 $2.03 trillion
FY 1999 $1.82 trillion
FY 1998 $1.72 trillion
FY 1997 $1.58 trillion
FY 1996 $1.45 trillion
FY 1995 $1.35 trillion
FY 1994 $1.26 trillion
FY 1993 $1.15 trillion
FY 1992 $1.09 trillion
FY 1991 $1.05 trillion
FY 1990 $1.03 trillion
I’d probably have to overdose on Addrall to address the rest.
Michael LaBossiere says
I see the premises of this argument, but what is your conclusion?
That tax cuts do not appear to have resulted in decreased government revenue. Are the tax cuts paying for themselves?
I also challenge the idea that government SHOULD increase its revenue, so tax cuts that result in reduced revenue could be a good thing in its own way. Mostly increased revenue results in increased intrusion by government into what should be the social spaces of organic, social networks.
Mike Monett says
I just found your blog today, Michael. It is very interesting.
My new discovery about the psychology of right-wingers is this:
(The Henchman’s Brain: Neuropsychological Implications of Authoritarianism and Prejudice).
This 2016 study, together with the lifelong work of Bob Altemeyer ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Altemeyer ),
convinces me that what you are discussing in this post is rooted in neurology, not just psychology.
The study makes the case that authoritarians have a flaw in flagging false ideas in their brains, and mentally recognizing contradictions in their beliefs. So, they turn to others to tell them what is really true and what is not.
This has in my opinion been rewarded by evolution because it is the root of blind loyalty, which is what made war and pillage successful, because a warlord did the thinking for all those who became his soldiers.
Robert Altemeyer studied Authoritarians since the 1960s, and his simulations reveal so much about how dangerous it is when they get enough power, like right now in the US.
His free e-book is here:
Robert Altemeyer, 2006, “The Authoritarians”:
Michael LaBossiere says
There has been interesting work on the psychology and neurology behind political views. While I am stubborn in my resistance to philosophical materialism, I certainly won’t ignore such evidence of the influence of the brain on belief formation.
Also, thanks for the link to the free book.
You may want to reconsider which side is authoritarian. If you dare, read Leviathan and its Enemies.
Why are “right-wingers” authoritarian and left-wingers not?
You have an aesthetic desire. I suspect it correlates with your auto-biography. That is, you want to make your own biological and psychological make-up the way of goodness and purity, while those whom you despised since high school (the high school quarterback, the prom king and others whom inspired envy and hatred in you) became evil. Thus you constantly delve, I suspect, into intellectualism, making yourself antithetical to that which you hate, assigning “morality” to that which is merely aesthetics.
Maybe you’re the authoritarian who refuses to mind his own cabbage patch.
Similar to Karl, I am wondering where your more prolific commenters went? There used to routinely be the kind of serious bloviation he was looking for in your comment section.
They’ve been replaced with your bloviations.