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The politics of bullshit 

An excerpt from the former finance minister’s new book, The Effective Citizen.

click to enlarge Graham Steele was a member of the Nova Scotia legislature from 2001 to 2013. His latest book, The Effective Citizen: How to Make Politicians Work For You is available now from Nimbus Publishing. - VIA NIMBUS PUBLISHING
  • Graham Steele was a member of the Nova Scotia legislature from 2001 to 2013. His latest book, The Effective Citizen: How to Make Politicians Work For You is available now from Nimbus Publishing.
  • VIA NIMBUS PUBLISHING

What is political bullshit? Figure out what people want, then tell them what they want to hear. Make claims that aren’t true but can’t easily be disproven. If they are disproven, attack personally whoever disproves them. If you have to, make stuff up. Promise whatever it takes to win a vote. If you break a promise, say you’re keeping it, just differently. Say you have no choice. Never explain or apologize. If something goes badly, blame somebody else. If something goes well, take the credit. Stick with your team no matter what. Always be attacking. Forget logic, science and math; people vote based on what they believe, not what is true. Get your talking points and repeat, repeat, repeat.

The longer you’re in politics, the more this behaviour seems normal. You forget that it’s actually a pathological way of interacting with citizens who you are pledged to represent. Bullshit helps you win, so you go with it. You get so deep into the bullshit that you don’t even smell it anymore.

Politicians use these techniques because they are effective, especially in the short term. If we don’t like these techniques, then we should stop voting for politicians who use them. But we do vote for them, so they’ll keep using them.

Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s bad behaviour, including lying and half-truths, should have excluded him from the political arena. Yet there was a percentage of the population that seemed willing to forgive all and support him no matter what. There must be an element of “he’s one of us” and the war mentality, where all is forgiven of someone on the same side of the battle. “He’s only doing what he has to do to win against those bastards.”

Politicians get so used to using their arsenal of rhetorical techniques that they forget they don’t work outside the realm of politics. For example, politicians often are terrible witnesses in a courtroom, at least if they are testifying about political events. They have gotten used to a certain way of talking and to not being cross-examined expertly, and to a credulous audience.

One of Nova Scotia’s longest-serving and most-respected politicians was, late in his political career, called into court to testify about events surrounding the operation of a publicly owned casino. In the end, the judge ruled that the politician was scarcely believable. This was astonishing to me. One of the most trusted voices in provincial politics was deemed by a judge to be unworthy of belief. That politician had probably gotten so used to political ways of speaking that he did not know how to communicate in any other way.

Politicians don’t like to lie, but they have developed so many techniques for shading the truth that it’s no wonder citizens think of them as liars. But technically they’re not liars. They’re bullshitters, and there’s a big difference.

Now let’s talk about what you’re doing to do about it.

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