While it is generally accepted that politicians sometimes bend the truth for their own designs, outright lying — especially when it seemingly becomes a handy toolkit — is a cardinal sin.
Nowhere is this enquiry on political morality and integrity more active and visible today than in the United States where President Donald Trump is being crucified for supposedly being routinely economic with the truth.
While it is a truism that loose lips sink ships, meaning unguarded talk can be toxic and dangerous, lying tongues sink fleets.
One of the key pieces of literature that has become a handbook for those studying leadership and ethics is James Comey’s “Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership”, published on April 17 this year, 11 months after Trump fired him as director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Comey exhaustively explains why, in his view, lying has become not only toxic, but an objectionable part of contemporary politics.
Fittingly, the autobiography opens with a very powerful author’s note.
“I understand the impulse to think that any book about one’s life experience can be an exercise in vanity, which is why I long resisted the idea of writing a book of my own.
“But I changed my mind for an important reason. We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalised, unethical behaviour is ignored, excused, or rewarded. This is not just happening in our nation’s capital, and not just in the United States.
“It is a troubling trend that has touched institutions across America and around the world — boardrooms of major companies, newsrooms, university campuses, the entertainment industry, and professional and Olympics sports. For some of the crooks, liars and abusers, there has been reckoning. For others, there remain excuses, justifications, and a stubborn willingness by those around them to look the other way or even enable the bad behaviour,” he says.
Clearly, “the troubling trend” where “basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalised, unethical behaviour is ignored, excused, or rewarded” has reached our shores.
In the just-ended political campaigns that preceded the July 30 harmonised elections, the decision that was made by the MDC-Alliance to sacrifice civility and dignified issue-based debate — which was pushed by the new political administration in order to entrench our democracy — on the pyre of expediency in order to capture State power by all means has bred a toxic environment where “facts” and “truth” are disputed depending on political tribe.
Unfortunately, truths and facts have become ultimate casualties, while lies and fake news have became the stock-in-trade for ambitious politicians.
Before the elections, we were told about Chinese and Russian hackers who were in Zimbabwe to rig the elections. We were told of German scientists who were in the country to test the ballot paper to ensure that it doesn’t misbehave by making a voter’s choice migrate from the MDC-Alliance to Zanu-PF.
We were told of the $15 billion kitty that Trump had promised to an MDC-Alliance government. We were told of bucket and bus loads of cash that were ready to be poured into Zimbabweans after the elections.
And as election day drew closer, we were told about a supposed anti-rigging team.
In fact, the list is endless and ever-growing. It is a real story for the gods.
Well, since most of these issues were raised at political rallies, they might be considered to be political banter. However, the trend continued after the elections, when the MDC-Alliance lodged its petition to overturn the July 30 Presidential election results.
One of the key findings of the Constitutional when it dismissed the election petition on August 24 was that the MDC-Alliance seemed to have fabricated evidence with the express aim of misleading the court.
“ZEC proved through V11 forms produced that allegations some forms had been signed and not populated was false, and there appears to have been a deliberate fabrication of evidence with an intent to mislead the court,” said the ConCourt.
However, most worryingly, despite evidence to the contrary from its own officials, the MDC-Alliance still claims that it has all the V11 from across the country, which supposedly show that they won the July 30 Presidential election. This is just unpresidential. There is inherent honour and humility in conceding, even grudgingly.
Incompatibility with leadership
The tendency of small lies to mutate into big lies that have the ability to be harmful has been observed over the years, and most often it becomes difficult to unlearn those lies.
In chapter 5 of his book, Comey begins with quote from Thomas Jefferson — an American founding father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third US president.
“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”
Comey reinforces this observation with his own views. “I guess what concerned me the most about the small lie was the danger of it becoming a habit. I have seen many times over the years how liars get so good at lying, they lose the ability to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not. They surround themselves with other liars.
“The circle becomes closer and smaller, with those unwilling to surrender their moral compasses pushed out and those willing to tolerate deceit brought closer to the centre of power. Perks and access are given to those willing to lie and tolerate lies.
“This creates a culture, which becomes an entire way of life. The easy, casual lies — those are a very dangerous thing. They open up the path to the bigger lies, in more important places, where the consequences aren’t so harmless.”
After taking over the MDC Alliance in February, Nelson Chamisa had the opportunity to re-invent the opposition into a viable political project that is decoupled from a quisling political formation and grounded in a nationalistic project to advance Zimbabwe’s interest.
But the strategic gamble to adopt a Trump-esque approach of seeking political capital through eviscerating attacks on the Zanu-PF leadership, fanned mainly through social media platforms, including alliances with meddlesome countries that have always harboured ill-will towards Zimbabwe, has taken a toll on the MDC-Alliance.
And the propensity to routinely lie, whose impact will probably become more telling once starry-eyed supporters begin to make an honest inquiry once the toxic environment dissipates, as it will surely do, means the fledgling political formation might not have the moral legs to stand on.
It is a missed opportunity for the MDC-Alliance, and one that is likely to fatally affect their political prospects in five years’ time.
But quite clearly, there is a presumption of moral rectitude on political leaders and putative leaders, and it needs to be guarded jealously. Lying simply does not have, and mustn’t have, a place in politics.
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