The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The honest truth about political leaders’ dishonesty

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (AP Photo/Willis Glassgow)
Placeholder while article actions load

Buried within recent research by the Pew Research Center on Americans' distrust of government are some telling numbers about how incredibly little we esteem our elected officials.

The report, released last week, asked respondents to what extent they felt certain words ("lazy," "patriotic") describe political leaders, business executives and the typical American. Just 23 percent thought "intelligent" described their elected officials very well. A full 41 percent said the word "selfish" is a particularly apt description for government leaders. And just 8 percent of the more than 6,000 respondents said the term "honest" suitably characterizes the people we elect to lead us.

Even more unsettling than how poorly political leaders fared was how they compared against other groups. Respondents rated business leaders better on every trait except patriotism—never mind all those massive executive paychecks or CEO double-speak about job cuts. Even the "typical American" was seen as more honest and less selfish than government officials were.

This likely will surprise no one. For years, Gallup polls have put members of Congress at or near the bottom of a stack of other professions when it comes to honesty and ethics—ranking below bankers, lawyers and even car salespeople for their levels of integrity. In 2013, only lobbyists fared worse.

Still, it's a revealing reminder about why some of the current presidential candidates seem not to be getting hurt by flouting the fact-checkers. Donald Trump has tweeted out homicide statistics that PolitiFact has called "wildly inaccurate" from a nonexistent crime source. Carly Fiorina spoke about there being images in a Planned Parenthood video during the second GOP debate that have been debunked. Ben Carson's tale of his "full scholarship" offer to West Point has been called out.

Why is this happening? Yes, trust in the media, the traditional arbiter of disputes over what's true and what isn't, may have fallen. But it appears that our standards for the honesty and ethics of elected officials have fallen, too—so far, in fact, that we simply no longer expect much from people in political office or those who hope to attain it.

Our political leaders are supposed to be the best among us. They're supposed to be the ones with the highest levels of ethics and integrity, the least selfish and the most intelligent. But in many cases, the inverse has become true, and a self-reinforcing loop of dishonest rhetoric stands to make it much, much worse.

This year's fast-and-loose playing with the facts is built on a sinking standard of what we expect from our leaders—and their growing willingness to spin the truth or outright deny it. Each time they do it, too many of us become just a little more immune, and a little more willing, unfortunately, to look the other way.

Read also:

How Pope Francis defines a good political leader

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.