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Brendan Nyhan in his office at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Brendan Nyhan in his office at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Brendan Nyhan in his office at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

“Telling it like it is” – Are we seeing a renaissance of the honest politician?

A conversation with Brendan Nyhan - Political scientist, media critic and New York Times contributor

August 27, 2015

Logo final_highHANOVER, New Hampshire – “All politicians lie and cheat.” “You can’t trust them.” “They all do whatever it takes to get elected.” Sound familiar? Being an elected officeholder doesn’t exactly come with a lot of positive public appraisal these days.

To turn the tide, and to make a virtue of necessity, various presidential candidates present themselves as cut-the-crap straight-talkers on the 2016 campaign trail. Trump-ism and “Telling it like it is” — is honesty back in fashion?

Not so fast, says Brendan Nyhan. The author of “All the President’s Spin” has been called “one of the most thought-provoking writers about politics on the web” – or more dogmatic, a “political science shaolin warrior.” We talked to Nyhan about honest politicians, scandals and the blood sport that is campaigning.

Trump-ism is sweeping the nation. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie runs a “Telling it like it is” campaign. And Texas firebrand Ted Cruz is surging in Iowa. Are we witnessing the renaissance of the honest, put-it-all-out-there presidential candidate?

I don’t think there is such a thing as an honest politician. Some people are just better at performing as if they are revealing their true self or speaking honestly. Trump and Christie have made speaking bluntly a stick of their own. There is this idea of a time when politicians spoke the truth. But politicians always try to speak in a way that will appeal to voters. Part of the reason politicians seem so bland and evasive is because it is very easy to say the wrong thing. People say they want politicians to speak honestly. But speaking honestly will often offend the voters you are trying to win over.

The political scientist saying he is not buying it is one thing. But what about the voter?

A Chris Christie campaign banner. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

People can recognize a good political performer. It sounds refreshing to hear a politician who is compelling, or who sounds honest. In the 2000 campaign, Al Gore was seen as a phony and a fake – George W. Bush was seen as this honest, plainspoken Texan. They were both from elite families. They both had fathers who were national politicians. They were both very wealthy. But George W. Bush was a better performer. He seemed more real.

So how do you tell if someone is real or fake?

There is a kind of humility that journalists and voters should have about their ability to discern the true character of someone based on what you see on the stump or on TV. I don’t think that is even a useful question. We can try to assess if someone seems like a responsible, outstanding person. I’m not sure we can tell if they are being real or authentic.

Campaigning should not be about vetting the character of a candidate?

There truly are people who have personality flaws that are so severe that they probably shouldn’t be president. I’m just less confident that we can tell. And the search for the true person can crowd out policy. It is arbitrary which politicians we cover as being authentic or inauthentic. Jeb Bush is stuck in some pretty uncomfortable positions, but it doesn’t fit any particular narrative of him, so it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. John McCain said things that Republicans were uncomfortable with. But he is a “maverick” and a “straight talker.” There was a whole supporting personality narrative that was used to illustrate those positions.

Part of your research focuses on political scandals. Do voters make up their minds based on an email controversy?

We saw with Bill Clinton that scandal doesn’t necessarily prevent people from supporting a politician. There are some scandals that are devastating to a politician’s image. But people are pretty good at rationalizing who they’d like to vote for. The partisans will line up on either side regardless. There are a lot fewer independents than people think, and they don’t pay very much attention to politics. People who follow the news about Hillary’s emails are not people whose votes are up for grabs.

How bad do things need to get in order for a voter say, ‘No more. You lost my vote’?

The types of scandals that are often identified in research as being harmful to politicians’ prospects often involve formal indictments and ethics charges against members of Congress. More nebulous controversies and investigations are less likely to be damaging, especially when they involve higher-profile figures about whom members of the public have stronger views.

Campaigning has become a blood sport, everything is a scandal nowadays. Do all the negativity and over-saturation turn people off?

As much as people say they are annoyed by politics, it helps to motivate them. Politics has become more of a form of entertainment. The idea of this deliberate voter who is choosing between two candidates on the basis of their merits isn’t really appropriate for most people. It is more like team sports. Who is up? Who is down? It is fun to follow and root for your team.


This interview has been condensed and edited. Make sure to also follow States in Play on Facebook.

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