On Lies and Bullshit and What They Do to Democracy

In the past few years, politicians have increasingly been able to get away with spreading falsehoods without consequence. As Andrea Römmele explains, this is bullshit. But what is the difference between a lie and bullshit, and what can we do about their political ramifications?

Politics and Lies

There are numerous examples of political lies throughout history. In the United States there was Watergate in the 1970s, President Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 2000s. One of the most prominent lies came from the Ceauşescu government in Romania, which went as far as to fake the weather forecast, attempting to make people believe that they were actually not freezing. In 2006 the Hungarian Prime Minister admitted among party colleagues that he lied throughout his whole campaign. His confession was recorded, became public, and resulted in mass protests. The never-ending, well-documented stream of lies by the Trump administration is the inglorious peak of this development.

The people who told these lies knew they were lying. They also knew that if certain facts were to become public, there would be no way to defend their position. It was obvious to the communicators that there were, or could be, facts that would expose them as liars.

They all accepted a certain definition of truth and facts, which served as a benchmark to decide what to discuss. You can claim almost everything, but as soon as someone presents evidence against it, it is marked as a lie. We may have different political preferences, but we accept the same facts, which are the basis of our discourse. You can try to trick others by lying, but once the lie gets uncovered, there is no turning back.

Politics and Bullshit

In recent years, we have witnessed discourses in which facts lost their meaning as benchmarks for evaluations and decisions and became a flexible tool to reinforce certain worldviews.

An example is a photo used in flyers about domestic security distributed by the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The original picture was taken in Athens during a riot and shows a protestor hitting a police officer with a stick. The edited picture showed the protestor with a logo-badge from the German Antifa, a militant anti-fascist network. It was an obvious fake.

When asked for a clarification, an AfD spokesman claimed that a fake photo would not change the fact that the security situation in Germany was getting worse and that, captured in the photo or not, it is obvious who is responsible for the rise of violence in the country. The fact that the photo was fake did not change anything for the AfD. Its goal was not to discuss different arguments, but to promote a political view. Evidence and facts are now seemingly irrelevant, and have become something adjustable to a political cause.

It was, as former Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt calls it, bullshit. A lie can be answered with evidence, which forces the liar to revise or withdraw former statements. Bullshit cuts out unwelcome facts: evidence that supports the message is true; evidence that hinders it is false. The principle of truth loses its relevance.  As a consequence, political debates are no longer fact-based, but rest solely on worldviews, feelings, and values. It is hard to argue about them, because they are neither true nor false.

What This Means for Democratic Discourse…

In modern representative democracies, discourse and debates take place in the public sphere. But this sphere has changed immensely over the past decade. With new technologies enabling everyone to be a prosumer (producer and consumer of news), and with social media offering echo chambers to hide in, we miss the gatekeepers and opinion leaders who have structured and to some extent also guided debates in the past.

After legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite’s critique of the Vietnam War, the usually unwavering President Lyndon Johnson declared: “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost middle America.” Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in America. Today he would probably fight against accusations of fake news.

Cronkite’s colleague Marietta Slomka, anchor of ZDF’s Heute Journal in Germany, interviewed several politicians on live TV who had trouble explaining their point of view after Slomka confronted them with contradictory facts. For example, Stefan Mappus, the former prime minister of Baden-Württemberg, defended a major police action against demonstrators, until Slomka countered him with the fact that there had been attacks on seniors and children as well. She got him back to the ground of facts, which he had left to advance his political goals.

But these discourse-guiding figures are losing their influence. Their authority arose from their audience’s trust in them, which is getting weaker, as the line between truth and lie blurs. It only takes seconds to find alleged evidence against every news story and every political statement. The mass of information makes it harder to decide what is true and what is false, and it is becoming a matter of choice, instead of a matter of facts.

But as soon as we lose the standard for evidence, we lose the basis on which we can conduct frank dialogue with our political opponents. When our worldviews and our values differ, we need a common understanding of what counts as evidence and is therefore worthy of discussion. If we do not share this understanding, there is nothing to discuss, but only different claims.

… and What to Do About It

We will be confronted with more bullshit. As it builds upon our deeply held values and opinions, there is no quick solution and it is very unlikely that our discourse will get more structured and reliable anytime soon. Experts and journalists have to reveal and counter the bullshit and its randomness, while strictly sticking to the facts. Instead of focusing on being the first to publish the most shocking content, their goal should be to deliver the most profound information. In the long term, we have to develop and teach the ability to evaluate the available information and recognize bullshit. We have to challenge it by fact-checking, debating, and disputing false information. The less opposition it gets, the stronger it becomes.

Reading Harry Frankfurt’s book on bullshit is a good start.


Andrea Römmele is the Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group “Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere” and a Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance.

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.