The intrinsic dishonesty of right-wing politics

Richard Parncutt 

September 2020, revised August 2021


The left often accuses the right of dishonesty and vice-versa. That is not what this page is about. The point of this page is to explain that the left-right relationship in politics is intrinsically asymmetrical. The right wing is inherently more dishonest than the left, otherwise it would not exist.

To exist, a party has to win elections, at least occasionally. To win elections, the right has to lie: it has to convince at least some voters to vote against their interests. The situation is different for the left. The left has a choice: it can win by sticking entirely to the truth, but it can also lie, as politicians often do.

If you don't believe that this fundamental difference exists between left- and right-wing parties, you haven't understood how politics works. Or perhaps you have been listening too much to the media, which on the whole are owned by rich people. Needless to say, to own something big, you need to be rich.

Polite caveats

Before continuing, I should make something clear. I am not accusing people on the right side of the political spectrum of dishonesty, or at least not of deliberate dishonesty. Rather, I am trying to understand something fundamental about the difference between left and right -- something that has always been true and (as far as I can see) always will be true, as long as we have democracies of that kind. My claim is that dishonesty is intrinsic to the system, and independent of country or historical period.

I should also say that although I generally support the left side of politics, I do acknowledge that politics can be a very individual thing and sometimes specific right-wing politicians can be preferable or more electable than their left-wing counterparts for personal reasons. There are indeed some right-wing politicians whom I admire, at least in some ways, Angela Merkel and Arnold Schwarzenegger being examples. But that does not change the fact that right-wing politics is generally and fundamentally problematic, as I will explain.

Left versus right

The left-right distinction in politics is like this. Most people want and deserve a better deal for themselves. That can only mean one thing: distributing wealth more fairly. That in turn can only mean taxing the rich and improving welfare. That is how wealth is distributed by governments. Despite persistent claims to the contrary ("trickle down" and other such nonsense), that’s the only reliable way to do it. Capitalism naturally increases the gap between rich and poor (that's why it's called "capitalism") and the only reliable way to reduce that gap is by some kind of state intervention.

Put another way: the state creates the money, with which everyone is free to play. But the state does that on the condition that it also ultimately controls the distribution of the money (e.g., by taxation and welfare). That is necessary to ensure the game remains within reasonable bounds and the state remains in control. (In today's globalized world, that control is being undermined, but that is another story.)

Right-wing politics is called "conservative" because it conserves hierarchical social structures. These essentially ensure that the rich stay rich, which often (not always) means that the poor stay poor. Right-wing politics is for relatively rich people who want to stay rich or become richer. On the assumption that we have constant resources (natural resources and labor) and the days of economic growth are over (at least in rich countries, given the threat of climate change and biodiversity loss), there is only one way the rich can become richer, and that is at the expense of everyone else. In the past, that was usually true; today, it is even more often true.

And the rich are indeed becoming richer. In the past few decades (following the launch of international neoliberalism by Reagan and Thatcher), the number of USD-millionaires and billionaires in the world has been steadily increasing. Needless to say, that is undermining democracy. During the COVID pandemic, the wealth of the super-rich increased enormously, at the same time as poverty rates increased.

Even without those modern tendencies, it is generally true that if you are not rich, and you want to vote in your own interest, you should avoid voting for the right. Moreover, if you are rich and want a better and fairer society, you should also avoid the right.

The central importance of lying

The amazing thing is this: If people always voted in their own interest, as they are supposed to do in a democracy, the left would always win. That's because the left represents a majority of people that possesses a minority of the country's money, whereas the right represents a minority of people that possesses a majority of the country's money. So how does the right side manage to win so often?

There is an easy and rather obvious answer. The right wins elections by spreading lies. They do that because they cannot win the election any other way. If the voters voted in their own interests, most would vote left, because the left represents a majority of people, even if they possess a minority of the country's money. If the right is to win the election, it must convince many people to vote against their own interests.

By a "lie". I simply mean a statement that is untrue or misleading. The person who lies may or may not know that they are lying, in which case the word "lie" might be inappropriate. But there are always people within the system who know that the lies are untrue. They promote the lies anyway, because they serve their financial interests.

If I seem to be accusing the right of lying, please note that I am doing only that and nothing else. If it sounds like I am angry, so be it. Perhaps I am, perhaps I am not. But that is not relevant. I am trying to talk in an objective way about lying, as something that many people do, but in particular the political right.

The negative feeling created by the word "lie" is an interesting thing in itself. We avoid accusing people of lying because we feel that it is somehow not correct to do so. People will not respect us if we accuse others of lying. Perhaps it is even more socially acceptable to lie than to accuse someone of lying! If so, where does this negative feeling come from? The answer lies in sociological theory of power relationships. Often, the rich and powerful determine what we think is true, on any topic.
 If lying is the Achilles heel of the rich, the rich will of course try to stop us from realizing that. That can explain the social taboo on accusing others of lying, especially if those people are higher in the hierarchy. Everyone knows intuitively that one simply does not do that. It is not the done thing. This taboo makes it possible for the rich to lie constantly. That is essential for their survival, because if they stopped lying, they would lose much of their wealth. Politics would drift toward the left and make taxation increasingly fair. That is what most of the the rich fear the most. Of course, there are many exceptions.

A favorite tactic of the rich is to lie about economics, while pretending to present sophisticated economic theory. A popular narrative is that we need economic growth, to alleviate or even end poverty, because economic growth makes everyone richer. In fact what usually happens is that only the rich get richer and the environment is destroyed. The best way to alleviate or end poverty is the Robin Hood method: take from the rich and give to the poor. It boils down to simple arithmetic.

Chaos and economic mismanagement

Another popular lie is that the left/green politicians (those who actually want to redistribute wealth, and could actually do it if elected) are “chaotic” or "fiscally irresponsible": Or something else is fundamentally wrong with them — but not with the conservatives and paranoid xenophobes, who are seen as ok and trustworthy.

The truth is this.
If one side of politics is promoting chaos and fiscal irresponsibility more than the other, it's the right. The right is more commonly linked (in reality, rather than in the distorted public imagination) with corruption, waste or misuse of public money, overspending on the military (rather than infrastructure, welfare, public services), risking or provoking international conflict, subsidizing and bailing out big companies (corporate welfare), and allowing individuals and corporations to evade mind-boggling amounts of tax. Pages of examples could be given, but perhaps just one will suffice: In the past few decades in the US, Republican governments have usually increased the national debt whereas Democrat governments reduced it. 

The right don't want people to realize that their extravagance is destroying the economy, so they tell the public the opposite: the left wing is extravagant, which is destroying the economy. They pay the media to publish that and other bad stories about the left. The media know that if they toe the line there will be financial benefits, either direct or indirect. So they go along with it, while pretending to be neutral, promoting freedom of speech and balanced coverage of all ideas.

Defining right versus left

Discussions of this kind depend on how left-wing and right-wing are defined. If you look in different places, you will find different definitions. Perhaps the simplest and clearest definition is this: The political right is more selfish, whereas the left is more altruistic. Of course, the right would feel insulted by such an honest definition. In any case, the right is intrinsically less honest than the left, and has more power than the left. For these reasons, you won’t find this simple definition in Wikipedia under “Left–right political spectrum”. If someone typed it into Wikipedia, right-wing Wikipedians would immediately delete it. Instead, you read that the left promotes “social equality” and the right promotes “social hierarchy”. Well, it’s almost the same thing.

Important conclusion: The left/right distinction is not symmetrical. It’s misleading to say there are “good arguments on both sides”. That’s a myth created by the right, which has more influence than the left due to its wealth.

Assuming democracy is working (which unfortunately it is not), it follows that the left and right have different political strategies, and the difference is not what is normally thought or stated:
It follows that if the gap between rich and poor is too big (and today it is surely much, much too big), no one except the rich, the crazy, or the misled would vote for the right.

These ideas can explain why politicians attack each other so aggressively. The right have no choice but to lie, if they want to win elections. The left is justifiably insulted by being lied to, and so it goes on.

The left-right seesaw

Why does politics often go back and forth between left and right, instead of tending toward one side or the other for long periods? Look at it this way: Every government, left or right, makes mistakes when in power, and they also have to accept the blame for things beyond their control, or problems that the previous government created. That's why they tend to lose the next election. But the process is not symmetrical:
Money and motivation

Still not convinced?
Think of it this way. Would you like to be a politician? Yes? No? Politics can be hard work. You are only going to do it if it is in some way rewarding for you. Politicians are motivated by something, and there are two main categories: Either they want to make money or they want to do something for the world. If they manage to do both, so much the better. Those who are more interested in money tend to be more dishonest. Those who want to do something for the world tend to be more honest.

In financial terms, everyone wants more money. Both the rich and the poor want more money, and both right- and left-wing politicians want more money. That's often what politics boils down to. When right-wing parties succeed in making the rich richer, only a small percentage of the population benefits. When left-wing parties succeed, most of the population benefits. So why doesn't the left wing always win? Because every time the government does something good for the people, the right wing comes along with a sophisticated, misleading economic theory to convince the majority that the government is spending too much.

An objective conclusion

This is not a rant. I may be biased in many ways, as everyone is -- but not with respect to the main claims in this text, which are simple and obvious. 

The right have no choice but to lie to voters to ensure their political survival.
That is
a logical and neutral conclusion drawn from simple, obvious premises. The system cannot work any other way. Only the left enjoys the luxury of telling the truth consistently and still getting elected. Of course the left doesn’t always do that, but they are generally more honest than the right. If that was not the case, the right would never get into power. Put another way: right-wing politics is intrinsically dishonest.

Allow me to revise the main points. We start from the assumption that some people have more money than others. That means that half of the wealth is owned by a minority. We may also confidently assume that the average person wants more money, regardless of whether s/he is rich or poor. Of course there are exceptions, but on average that is true. If in this scenario, the rich minority wants more money, and to get that it needs political power. Given that every adult has one vote at the election, the rich minority can only win if it convinces a large proportion of the poorer majority to vote for them, against their interests. That can only be done by lying, because (given how left- and right-wing politics are normally defined) it is never in the interest of the poorer majority to vote for the right.

The last sentence is a truism. It follows logically from the normal definition of left- and right-wing politics. If you don't believe it, or you merely have the feeling that it cannot be correct, it is probably because you have been brainwashed by privately owned or influenced media. Don't worry, we are all constantly being influenced by distortions of the truth. Don't underestimate the power of social manipulation!

Here is how social manipulation works. If you can afford to buy a newspaper, TV station, or social media platform, you are rich. You probably, therefore, vote on the right side of politics. That automatically creates a bias toward the right in your newspaper. Since newspapers always need finance, they are generally biased toward the right. An exception is only possible if the  owners of the newspaper are genuinely altruistic. It does happen in exceptional cases. For example, the Guardian has a long leftist tradition. It is now owned by a trust that exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of the newspaper in perpetuity. That's why it is one of the relatively few newspapers in today's world that reliably publishes the truth. Not always, of course. Nobody's perfect.

So you see: I am not expressing an opinion here. I am presenting a simple argument — so simple that it can hardly be wrong. The indisputable conclusion is that right-wing politicians have to be dishonest to survive as politicians. That doesn’t mean they always lie, of course. But those that refuse to lie presumably go under and we don’t hear from them again, unless they emerge on the left (which sometimes happens).

Please note also that I am not promoting extreme left ideologies. Instead, this is an argument for moderate or centre-left politics. That is because dishonesty also increases toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. In addition, fascist ideologies (the extreme right) tend to be been more dangerous ("evil") than communist ideologies (the extreme left): whereas communist ideologies are typically only partly wrong, fascist ideologies tend to be more completely wrong, and more dangerous. In this way, left-right asymmetry is valid both for centrist and extremist politics. The left is generally more honest, the right less honest.

The role of religion

In this context, it is interesting to take a new look at the paradoxical link between right-wing politics and religion. Why do conservative parties call themselves “Christian” and so on when in fact they are quite the opposite?

Assuming that right-wingers need to lie to survive, an effective strategy is to pretend to take the moral high ground, while at the same time acting immorally. Religion makes this possible. In fact, this could be the reason religions (as powerful institutions) exist at all! Further info from a Christian or Jewish perspective is here.

Religions are compatible with dishonest right-wing politics for another reason. They are dishonest themselves. If fact, dishonesty is the foundation of religion. Supernatural agents simply do not exist, and proclaiming that they do, especially today given our scientific knowledge, is lying — pure and simple. Honest people do not do that kind of thing.

Please note: I am not opposed to religion. Religions fill important functions.
I live in Austria where the churches make enormous social contributions both nationally and internationally. From a psychological perspective, spirituality certainly exists. From a social perspective, the need for ritual exists. Religions fulfill these needs. It fine and honest to talk about individual and collective spirituality in general terms, without putting people under pressure to proclaim arbitrary beliefs. Religious morality and ethics are important and necessary — today perhaps more than ever.

But if right-wingers claim to be religious, they should study the good aspects of religious morality, and implement them. To do that, they would have to cross the floor to the left side of politics. In Christianity, for example, the story of Jesus as presented in the gospels is one of a socialist, defending the rights of the poor, sick, discriminated, and downtrodden. Nothing could be more obvious than that. If the right wing claims to be "Christian", it can only be lying -- as it usually does.

The luxury of freedom of speech

I can only write these things because I have the luxury of a good, secure income that will not be affected by political changes in the foreseeable future (although climate change could indeed cause unprecedented financial crises). That security gives me freedom of speech.
From my relatively secure position, I also have the luxury of saying that the truth is more important to me than money.

Others don't have the luxury of freedom of speech, or at least not at the same level. So it is understandable that they do not share opinions of this kind, and do not understand some basic things about political systems. 

Imagine a world in which everyone understood that right-wing politics is inherently dishonest, because otherwise it would not exist. In that world, only the rich would vote for the right, so the right would never win elections. Instead, elections would be competitions among different kinds of left-wing politics. The world would be a better place. People would care about each other, poverty would be eliminated, and so on.

That's why honesty is important! Have I made my point?

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