Saturday, January 28, 2017

Big Lies at the Monkey Cage

No, not that post. Just me talking about the uses of lies in politics, which may interest some readers here.

Posts at the Monkey Cage are highly constrained in terms of length and style, so I may as well use this blog for some additional notes and clarifications.

Mythical Lies. One point that perhaps could be stressed with respect to the political uses of myth would be that their acceptance always depends on the persuasiveness of alternative narratives. Moreover, it seems to me that the acceptance of myths usually hinges on taking particular narratives “seriously but not literally,” as was sometimes said of Trump supporters (and could, of course, be said of many other people).

For example, the appeal of the Soviet socialist myth in the 1930s did not hinge on its general accuracy or the degree to which practice lived up to its internal standards, but on its articulation of values that seemed plainly superior to the ones on offer by the major alternative narratives (liberal capitalist or fascist). Not everyone may have felt “dizzy with success” in the 1930s, but little that was credible could be said for capitalism at the time (a lack of credibility reinforced by the impossibility of travel and centralized control of information, of course, but not only by that). Here’s Stephen Kotkin in his magisterial Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization:
The antagonism between socialism and capitalism, made that much more pronounced by the Great Depression, was central not only to the definition of what socialism turned out to be, but also to the mind-set of the 1930s that accompanied socialism’s construction and appreciation. This antagonism helps explain why no matter how substantial the differences between rhetoric and practice or intentions and outcome sometimes became, people could still maintain a fundamental faith in the fact of socialism’s existence in the USSR and in that system’s inherent superiority. This remained true, moreover, despite the Soviet regime’s manifest despotism and frequent resort to coercion and intimidation. Simply put, a rejection of Soviet socialism appeared to imply a return to capitalism, with its many deficiencies and all-encompassing crisis— a turn of events that was then unthinkable. (Magnetic Mountain, pp. 153-54).
On one reading of Soviet history, the valence of the capitalist and socialist myths eventually reversed (perhaps by the late 1970s? Or later?): capitalism came to seem fundamentally superior to many Soviet citizens, despite its problems (which, incidentally, were constantly pointed out by Soviet propaganda), while Soviet socialism came to appear unworkable and stagnant (despite the material advantages that many Soviet citizens enjoyed, including great employment stability). But this reversal in valence had less to do with specific facts (popular Soviet views of capitalism in the early 90s could be remarkably misinformed) than with an overall loss of trust in the values Soviet myths articulated, reinforced by decades of failed prophecy about the coming abundance. (Perhaps best conceptualized as a cumulative reputational cost of lying?).

Strategic Lies. One thing I did not emphasize in the piece is that people may of course be predisposed to believe lies that accord with their deep-seated identities. Everyone has their own favorite examples of this, though I am reluctant to speak of “belief” in some of the more extreme cases. (See, e.g., this post about the differential predispositions of voters to identify the bigger crowd in two pictures of the inauguration; perhaps it’s better to speak here of people giving the finger to the interviewers, reasserting their partisan identities). But by the same token, these lies do not work for groups whose identities predispose them to reject the message or the messenger (e.g., Democrats, in the question about inauguration pictures).

So “identity-compatible lies” (anyone have a better term?) should be understood as ways to mobilize people, not necessarily (or only) to deceive them, which put them in the same functional category as “loyalty lies” below. From a tactical standpoint, the question then is about the marginal persuasive effect of such lies: does telling a big lie that will be embraced by supporters and rejected by non-supporters increase or reduce the chances that an uncommitted person will believe you?

I’m not sure there’s an obvious answer to this question that is valid for most situations. In any case, it seems to me that, over time, the marginal persuasive effect should decrease, and even become negative (as seems to be happening in Venezuela, where in any case most people who are not Chavistas can and do simply “exit” government propaganda by changing the channel or turning off the TV, and the remaining Chavistas become increasingly subject to cognitive dissonance (how come after all the “successes” proclaimed by the government in the economic war, the other side is still winning?).

Loyalty Lies. The idea that baldfaced lies can help cement the loyalty of the members of a ruling group when trust is scarce seems to be becoming commonplace; both Tyler Cowen and Matthew Yglesias provide good analyses of how this may work within the context of the Trump administration. (Cowen is also interesting on what I would call “lies as vagueness” and their function in maintaining flexibility within coalitions, which I didn’t mention, but which are obviously related to this and this).

But I wanted to plug in specifically a really nice paper by Schedler and Hoffmann (linked, but not mentioned, in my Monkey Cage piece) that stresses the need to “dramatize” unity in authoritarian environments in order to deter challengers during times of crisis. Their key example is the Cuban transition of power from Fidel to Raul Castro (2006-2011) – a situation which saw the need for supposedly “liberal” members of the Cuban regime to show convincingly that they were in fact “on the same page” as everyone else in the elite. And the same need to dramatize unity in a crisis seems to me to be driving the apparent lunacy of some of the statements by Venezuelan officials (check out Hugo Perez Hernaiz’s Venezuelan Conspiracy Theories Monitor for a sampling).

I suspect that the need to dramatize loyalty within a coalition (by “staying on the same page” and thus saying only the latest lie du jour) may conflict with the imperatives of strategic lying (saying things that are credible to the larger groups). Here the tradeoff is about the relative value of support outside vs. support within the ruling group; the less you depend on the former, the less it matters whether elite statements are believed "outside."