George Santos’s expulsion is not a morality tale

Friday’s vote in the House of Representatives to expel Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was a rare and long overdue instance in which a politician in either party has paid a substantial political price for lying. That vote marked only the sixth time in U.S. history that anyone has been expelled from the House, and the first time a Republican has met that fate.

Politicians seldom pay a price for lying because most Americans believe that all politicians lie; if being truthful were a requirement for holding office, according to this logic, no one would qualify. And in today’s highly polarized environment, partisans readily condone or forgive lies by politicians on their team.

American politics is caught in a vicious circle: The more politicians lie, the more people come to see it as an inevitable part of political life for which no price should be paid and that politicians can lie without consequence encourages their cynicism.

Not even what happened to Santos, as justifiable as it was, is going to change that. 

Lying in politics is so prevalent, and the Republican majority in the House so slim, that the Republican leadership urged members of their party to vote against the resolution, even after a devastating report from the House Ethics Committee.

Perhaps that’s also why 114 of them did so, as a USA Today story put it, in spite of overwhelming evidence “supporting allegations against Santos that he sought to ‘exploit’ his House campaign for his own personal benefit; ‘blatantly stole from his own campaign’; deceived campaign donors to make payments for his own personal benefits; lied about his campaign finances; and ‘sustained all’ of his criminal activities through lying to his constituents, donors and staff about his background.”

The Ethics Committee even noted that Santos lied about cooperating with the committee as it conducted its investigation and that “Santos’ lies were so extravagant…(that) his own campaign staff referred to him as a ‘fabulist’ and that his lies were so concerning, he was ‘encouraged to seek treatment.’”

The decision to expel Santos took almost a year after the New York Times first reported a long list of Santos’s lies and after the House failed to expel him on two previous occasions. Last December, the Times documented what it labelled “material omissions or misrepresentations on personal financial disclosures.” It also found evidence that Santos had not graduated from Baruch College or worked at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, as he had claimed.

Over the last year, as an article in Vox notes, “Almost every aspect of Santos’s life has been drawn into question and his attempts to explain have grown increasingly labored — from his punchline-worthy  attempt to insist that he never said he was Jewish, but that he was ‘Jew-ish,’ to his initial firm denial of having dressed in drag as a young man in Brazil before eventually conceding to reporters… that he just ‘had fun at a festival.’”

Other politicians can take comfort from the fact that Santos did not pay a price just for lying but for the depth, breadth, magnitude and narrowly self-serving quality of his deceptions.

As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz told Vox, “Santos was more a character out of American literature than American history… ‘This is nothing that a historian can be much help on… There is no example like it. Embellishing happens a fair amount that a lot of people get away with,’ Wilentz continued. ‘This is a different order because this is a made-up life.’”

In run of the mill cases, politicians who lie can get away with it because lying has long been an expected, and even acceptable, part of the political game.

So long that we can trace that expectation to the ancient world. Plato, who was otherwise known for his dedication to truth and virtue, said “[I]f anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good.”

Writing in the wake of the revelation of the lies told by successive American administrations during the Vietnam war, the political theorist Hannah Arendt echoed Plato’s view in 1971 when she observed that “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.”

Two years later, another political philosopher, Michael Walzer, wrote that lying is inevitably part of the repertoire of political life and that politicians should not be expected to “govern innocently.” Walzer noted that even if politicians wanted to avoid lying, “they probably cannot: for other men are all too ready to hustle and lie for power and glory, and it is the others who set the terms of the competition. Hustling and lying are necessary because power and glory are so desirable…. And so the men who act for us and in our name unnecessarily hustlers and liars.”

But these are not merely musings of political philosophers. The American public has certainly gotten the message.

A 2010 CNN/Opinion Corporation survey found that “Three quarters of people questioned… think that modern-day federal officials are not honest, a figure that is essentially unchanged since 1994.” The poll also that Americans think that dishonesty is not new and that even politicians renowned for their virtue told lies.

Seventy-four percent of the respondents said they believed that George Washington lied while he was president, and 71 percent thought that “Abraham Lincoln, known as ‘Honest Abe,’ also lied to the public while serving in the White House.”

According to Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director, these findings suggest that the public seldom will be scandalized when they find out that a politician lied. “It’s all part of a rich tradition in American history,” Holland said, “the belief that politicians are not always telling the truth.”

A 2014 study found that the public is especially likely to accept politicians’ lies when they “bolster a shared belief that a specific political stance is morally right.” Lying that “served a shared moralized goal was more accepted and advocacy in support of the opposing view, or nonpreferred end, was more condemned, regardless of whether the statement was true or false.”

That study concluded that “political figures may be able to act in corrupt ways without damaging their images, at least in the eyes of their supporters.”

A 2022 study of public perceptions of lying in politics reinforces this conclusion and offers a perspective on why George Santos had to pay a price when other lying politicians do not. It found that “the moral acceptability of bearing false witness really depends on the extent to which such falsehoods are used in support of or against the explicit aims of one’s political group.”

Republicans and Democrats see lies told by their own party’s leaders as more acceptable than those told by politicians of the other party. Politicians can lie and survive when they are skillful enough to portray their lies as being told to advance a party’s agenda, not simply to burnish their own autobiography.

That 71 percent of Republicans in his congressional district wanted him to leave Congress suggests that Santos lacked that skill. 

Sadly, George Santos’s expulsion is not a morality tale about the dangers and consequences of lying in politics. It is, instead, a story of Santos’s failure to master one of the arts of modern politics — spinning his deceptions so that they would be seen as helping someone other than himself. Or his failure to master another art of congressional politics: building sufficiently deep bonds to your colleagues that they will stand by you even in the face of your wrongdoings.

That’s why he could not keep his party united behind him, and why 105 Republicans joined with 216 Democrats in making him walk the plank for his litany of lies.

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College. 

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