People sometimes ask me how I know when a politician is lying.
Sometimes, the signs are specific to the individual. One elected official I know who, in all other circumstances, is a look-them-straight-in-the-eyes guy always averts his gaze when he’s about to fib. Another starts to stammer when it’s time to prevaricate. Still another, who is normally soft-spoken, raises his voice when he’s about to issue a whopper.
There is one signal, however, that is universal.
Whenever I hear a politician — any politician from any party — say “the American people want this” or “the American people don’t want that,” I know the manure spreader has been pulled out of storage and is about to be put to hard and heavy work.
This is true even in the best of times.
The important thing to remember when an elected official starts spouting such obvious nonsense is that the American people are just that — people. They are individuals. They have dreams, hopes, fears and needs — what the founders of this nation and political scientists ever since have called interests — that are as varied as they are.
To presume that the interests of multi-multi-billionaire Bill Gates are the same as those of a single mother in the housing projects of New Orleans who’s trying to get by with a series of minimum-wage jobs is to engage in an absurdity. And the situation only grows more complicated when we add to the mix not just economic disparities but the variables of race, gender, faith, age, location and life experience.
There is no one American Dream.
If there are 330 million Americans, there are 330 million American dreams.
This is still more true now than at most times.
If the election results in November demonstrated anything, it is that we are even more fractured and fractious than at many other times in our history.
Neither major presidential candidate managed to gain a majority of the popular vote. That means more than half the country didn’t want to see Donald Trump in the White House. And more than half the country didn’t want to see Hillary Clinton occupy the Oval Office. (And even if Trump’s fictional claims that illegal votes were cast for Clinton were included, he still wouldn’t have reached 50 percent.)
In the 34 Senate races across the country, Democratic candidates won nearly 11 million more popular votes than Republicans — even though the GOP controls the Senate — but that number is skewed by some specific state anomalies. In the races for the U.S. Representatives, slightly more than 49 percent of voters cast their ballots for Republican candidates and just over 48 percent voted for Democrats.
In other words, neither political party can claim the support of even half the people in this country.
That fact alone should inhibit leaders of both parties from claiming to speak for “the American people.”
But politicians aren’t known for their reticence — or their lack of presumption. Most elected officials, even if they’ve only claimed their offices on the strength of votes from family members, tend to think of themselves as divinely invested and inspired.
What they want and think is what everyone should want and think.
And that’s OK.
The founders of this country didn’t presume we all would get along all the time. That’s why they set up a system of self-government that balanced enlightened self-interests against each other and gave us ways to work through our differences.
We’re meant to wrangle and quarrel and negotiate our way through the process. And, at least in theory, the single mother’s right to battle and contend for her interests is supposed to be every bit as valid as Bill Gates’ right is.
That’s supposed to be the way we work things out.
That’s also what makes the “I know what the American people want” lie so pernicious. What the elected officials who utter that nonsense really are saying is that they think only the views of the people who happen to agree with them need to be considered.
What I would love to hear some politician say is that he or she has no idea what “the American people” want, but that this is what they should do.
Saying that might be political suicide.
But at least it wouldn’t be a lie.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to email@example.com.