(Image: Private Media)

The following is an extract from Bernard Keane’s new book Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit.

One striking aspect of the emergence of blatant political liars in their respective countries is that their lies haven’t undermined their rise. In fact, as we’ve seen with Trump, lies may have helped his rise by binding his base more tightly to him.

Similarly, even when a leader like [Boris] Johnson or [Scott] Morrison clearly and demonstrably lies, it creates barely any impact within the electorate and none among their supporters. Yet these are people who would also insist they value truth and truth-telling, that public policy should be based on evidence, that they fiercely resent being misled by politicians.

A key reason for the success of political lies is growing partisanship and polarisation. There’s a direct link between lying and greater polarisation: the more strongly people identify with a particular party, or cause, or identity, the more likely they are to reject information that doesn’t fit with the preferred narratives associated with those parties, causes or identities.

Rather than consider information objectively, they engage in what’s called motivated reasoning, which selects favourable information, accepts favourable misinformation as true, and rejects unfavourable information. They are also more likely to accept statements that enforce a distinction between their own morally correct group and the morally objectionable out-group to whom they are opposed.

That is one of the keys to Trump’s rhetoric: statements that bind him to his supporters, statements that distinguish them from out-groups. Alternatively, supporters may understand perfectly well that their leader is lying and simply not care — or they may even believe it’s a good thing.

There is a name for this phenomenon: “blue lies”. Derived from the US (inevitably), it refers to police being willing to lie for one another to convict criminals or protect the force. People more readily accept lies when they are directed at out-groups. If you regard the out-group as an enemy, then lying is an acceptable tactic to use against them, just as no one baulks at the use of deception and lies in wartime.

A more nuanced version of “blue lies” was advanced by Australian academic Stephan Lewandowsky, one of the foremost authorities on responses to information and disinformation, in a 2019 piece for The Conversation: the willingness of people who feel excluded or marginalised from political systems to tolerate, or even support, lies told against the “elites” who marginalise them. These variations on the theme of polarisation provide us with an important tool in understanding why lying is tolerated and even liked by certain groups.

If such polarisation creates more liar-friendly conditions in politics, what has driven us further apart? While polarisation is much written about, solid work on its causes is quite rare and often confuses why with how or blames social media/ echo chambers without evidence. But there is substantial peer-reviewed evidence that finds one recurring factor associated with polarisation in the US and Europe: economic inequality and hardship. This is what encourages people to engage with people like themselves, economically and socially, whom they are more likely to trust and be trusted by.

And they engage less with groups unlike themselves, who may be perceived as a greater risk or threat — automatically creating or reinforcing in-groups and out-groups This kind of in-group identification is consolidated when the status of the group is perceived to be threatened — for example, by immigration, refugee arrivals or foreign competition. The threat may not merely be economic, but cultural and social in areas like anti-discrimination laws or growing female workforce participation that undermine the privileged position of groups such as white males.

Another version of this theory, advanced over several works by Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman, sees neoliberalism and globalisation as a transition from a “solid” society, in which individual freedom was constrained by economic security and the removal of uncertainties, to a “liquid” society, in which security was traded off for individual freedom, introducing more uncertainty, greater risk, constant change and much more economic insecurity.

Wage stagnation has been a characteristic of most developed economies over the last decade: average wage growth at the end of 2017 in the OECD was half of what it was in 2007. Moreover, low-income wages in most countries have stagnated to a greater degree than high-income wages. Greater hostility towards immigration is also linked to wage stagnation and perceptions of broader economic stagnation. The result is a greater adherence to local identities and non-economic forms of certainty, and perhaps even more slipperiness around meaning and facts.

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