How’s Your Truthiness?


When Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, he meant “…something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist,” (he later explained). Much of current conservative dogma is built on this concept: the assertion that climate change is a scam or that there is a war on Christmas, for two examples.

Debates and elections have been won based on this concept: the ability to pass off bullshit as the truth. Just watch Dick Cheney dole out known falsehoods so matter-of-factly that you yourself begin to question the actual truth. For example: I’ve watched video of him connecting 9/11 to Iraq, and then video of him denying that he ever did that, and his believability is frightening.

Truthiness is a potent tool for a politician. Elections turn on perceptions of a candidate more often than on that candidate’s actual competence. For example: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lowered John Kerry’s truthiness rating with the public. By endlessly repeating their accusations (and FOX News amplifying them), they generated a change in perception that likely cost Kerry the 2004 presidential election. Were the accusations true? No, but that is immaterial. Kerry lost his believability. (Yes: I do realize that he’s a seriously boring speaker, which didn’t help him.)

Just one more example, to tie this concept in with Survivor:

It’s Summer 2000. An episode late in the first season. The castaways are down to eight people or so, and four of them are in a secret alliance. During the episode, we’ve watched Wisconsin truck driver and colorful character Susan Hawk scheme with her allies.

During the tribal campfire at the end of that episode, host Jeff Probst asks her in front of everyone: “Susan. Straight up—is there an alliance?” She’s used to speaking her mind, not lying, and she’s totally unprepared for the question. The hollow “no” that slides out of her mouth gives away the lie instantly.

Truthiness? Hah! That little scene was what another network used to call “must-see TV.”

Sooner or later, every elected politician must tell a public lie, in order to grease the wheels of politics. Most politicians understand this; it’s the sausage-making part of the operation. You must do something you regret in order to get something you desperately want. And so you do it. And then you lie about it, perhaps even to yourself. But you know. And you also know that your integrity, your pledge to be truthful to your constituents, is why people voted you in. They trust you.

The thing is, your future as a politician relies not on whether you are actually telling the truth, but on whether you look and sound like you are. It’s not your honesty, stupid. It’s your truthiness.

The ability to tell the truth—whether or not it actually is the truth—also lies at the heart of acting and singing. A believable performance demands it. And so it’s easy to assume that Ronald Reagan didn’t hit his true acting stride until his presidency, when he played The Great Communicator to perfection. That’s a man who had truthiness to spare, if not the actual truth.


The pollster’s measure of a candidate’s truthiness is usually labeled Favorability (and un-). This 2012 article and chart of Hillary Clinton’s public image over the years is instructive: her favorability vastly outweighed her negatives while perceived as a victim during the Lewinsky era; they became nearly equal during her campaign for the New York Senate seat (a campaign will do that). Her favorability rose again during her term as Secretary of State (while practicing politics but never driving it). Expect her favorability to drop again as the 2016 election approaches; her opponents will spend millions on attack ads.

Another measure (or maybe the same measure, simply phrased differently) is illustrated by a CBS poll that asked, “Could you vote for this candidate?” Consider that Chris Christie is the only one of twelve contenders listed who has a higher “No” than “Yes” rating. With “Bridgegate” just getting its second wind, he’d better fasten his seat belt. Christie would likely do better than many of his rivals in a general election against a Democrat, but he stands little chance of beating those same rivals in the coming Republican primaries.

Christie’s truthiness has lost as much heft as the surgically diminished New Jersey governor himself. Thirty-two percent of New Jerseyans think that Christie personally ordered the 2013 traffic jam at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, according to a new poll. That’ll never be proven, of course. But most presidencies are tarnished in some way by the misdeeds of appointees.

But wait, there’s even more!

The state of New Jersey has spent in excess of $11 million on legal bills for the parties involved in bridge-gate. About $7.8 million went to defending members of the governor’s own office. And that’s just so far. Can’t wait until some reporter asks Christie about that.


Relentless attacks on Obamacare have damaged its truthiness. This despite the fact that it’s actually working. Millions now have previously impossible health coverage, premiums have not shot up as predicted, nor have jobs been lost. The disaster is for Republicans: their dire predictions never came to pass.

I hope that Clinton defends Obamacare. I wish that other Democrats would. In the face of constant attacks from conservative media, they’ve always played defense. They should be playing offense. The woman who ran against Mitch McConnell in 2014 wouldn’t speak in favor of Obamacare and even refused to admit she’d ever voted for Obama!

Guess what: she lost, big. Try to be what you’re not, and people will know it. It’s that truthiness.


This might be actual honesty, it might be just plain courage, or it might be a dominating delusion, but Marco Rubio is giving up his Senate seat to run for President. Just to run! That’s one way to bank some truthiness.

Contrast it with Rand Paul, who is trying very hard to run for Senate in Kentucky and for President everywhere else. Tacky. Lyndon Johnson did it in 1960, running for Veep and the Senate, and won both. In the process, he also won Texas for JFK.

Rubio does seem reliable. He has viability with both new blood and the old guard, no easy feat in today’s G.O.P.

But even this fresh face carries some baggage, in the form of a dedicated Sugar Daddy: billionaire Norman Braman. We’re talking way more than campaign contributions, and unmistakable favoritism exists despite denials from Rubio; read the story.

I’ll repeat: this is the sausage part that we all must eat. It comes inseparably with most politicians, like so many of those cable channels you’re paying for but flip past every time. Judge Rubio by his words and actions; they are clear enough.


Here’s an article that ought to scare the bejesus out of you, if you care at all about fair elections.

I’ve worked in the software biz for 30+ years, so I know that the possibility of hacking the vote in an election is NOT science fiction. Predictably low voter turnout could allow a savvy hacker to change vote totals undetectably.

This scary article is about the AVS WinVote system in Virginia and how easy it was to hack. To quote it:

“The vulnerabilities were so severe, and so trivial to exploit, that anyone with even a modicum of training could have succeeded. They didn’t need to be in the polling place – within a few hundred feet (e.g., in the parking lot) is easy, and within a half mile with a rudimentary antenna built using a Pringles can. Further, there are no logs or other records that would indicate if such a thing ever happened, so if an election was hacked any time in the past, we will never know.”

Good thing no one’s ever had that crazy idea!


New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writing on Intellectual dishonesty: what the Bush campaign called flip-flopping (see: John Kerry, 2004) should actually be viewed as examining a belief that was proven wrong—and admitting your error.

See: Claiming that the Iraq war was a success or that Health Care reform is a disaster.

See also: W responding to the last question in a 2004 debate, unable to admit ever having made a single mistake.


“I don’t have to defend everything that I’ve ever done,” Mike Huckabee said during an interview, not understanding that yes Mike, you actually do, if the press finds out about it.

Huckabee was downplaying his efforts as huckster for a diabetes cure based on supplements (and before that, a cancer cure based on verses in the Bible). A previous century’s version of those cures was, literally, snake oil.

“I’m not doing those [diabetes cure] infomercials, obviously, now as a candidate for president.”

Keep digging your hole, Mikey. Mitt Romney made a similar statement of false contrition in 2012, about employing undocumented household help: “I can’t have an illegal working for me NOW, I’m running for President.”

…as opposed to when he’s not running.


I’ll end on a discouraging note: the Federal Election Commission levied just short of $600,000 in fines related to misdeeds during the 2014 election, the lowest amount since records began in 2001. This versus a sure bet that 2014 saw record election spending.

Sausages for dinner again? Sigh.

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Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.

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