Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

In elections, it’s time to learn the facts of lies

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct. 9, 2016.

Jim Young/Reuters

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research

Can "big lie" politics win?

When it comes to the current presidential race, it's not just the polls that one should closely monitor – there is a new data beast: the fact-check. Politicians have been known to periodically embellish or stretch the truth but the politics in two of Canada's most important allies – the United States and the United Kingdom – have taken a sad turn. Perhaps the irony is that the politics of anger, frustration and mis-truths more belies the lack of being "united" for both those countries.

Story continues below advertisement

The polls are certainly important, but the new cool kids on the data block are the truth seekers – organizations that monitor, check and validate the truthfulness or lack of truthfulness of the utterances of those that want the support of voters.

About 25 years ago, some might have thought, naively, that the advent of the World Wide Web would kill the ability for anyone to make a false or misleading statement – after all, the truth was at one's fingertips, right? Wrong. The truth has become fungible with facts and claims interchangeably competing for the attention of the public.

Take the U.S. presidential election as an example. PolitiFact, which has won a Pulitzer Prize for its work, has been fact-checking both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The latest scorecard suggests that a paltry 4 per cent of the statements by Trump are completely true while 24 per cent of Clinton claims are true. Mathematically, Ms. Clinton is six times more "truthful" than Mr. Trump according to PolitFact. However, no politician seeking to be president of the United States should be proud that one of four statements are outright truthful.

Although observers and pundits may dismiss the lie as an unfathomable winner in any political contest, the recent Brexit vote should be a sobering reminder of how the lie, if it appeals or validates the anger or frustration of voters, becomes a vehicle and rationalization for punishing the establishment.

During the U.K. referendum vote on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, the Brexiteers plastered on buses and repeated at rallies that an estimated £350 million that currently go to the EU could be redirected to the National Health Service. This had great appeal to the Euro-skeptics, it was the right "fact" at the right time, targeting the right audience. The problem is that the claim was not true. Indeed, in very short order after the campaign, Nigel Farage, a leader in the Brexit forces, not only stepped down but backpedalled on the claim, calling it a mistake. Ironically, or perhaps thankfully, an organization called Brexit Justice has raised £175,000 to take dishonest politicians to court and jail them.

The lesson here is that lies can persuade voters and liars can win. Perhaps that is the most unfair lesson of today's state of political discourse. When you look at the underlying sentiment of the populace, there are significant swaths of society that have been left behind. If you live in the United Kingdom and you have become underemployed or seen your wages decline, you are looking to punish the establishment. In the U.S., if you lost your home in the real estate crash, you are looking to punish the political establishment. After all, if one's objective is to punish the political establishment, it seems one is likely willing to accept a lie or two just to achieve the core mission to punish.

Canadians may take solace that, today, they are not enmeshed in the political discourse like our neighbours. Earlier this year, a Nanos survey suggested that one of every two Canadians thought the generation of our children would be worse off than their parents. Here at home, Canadians should not be so smug as to think that the ugly politics of our friends could not manifest itself here. In the future, we may spend more of our time not only tracking voter sentiment but tracking the ebbs and flows of the truthful or untruthful utterances of politicians.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨