True Versus Truthiness in Politics

April 25, 2013


Fleishman Hillard’s new brand identity centered around “The Power of True,” is a provocative and challenging concept.  “True” is such a deep and complex word.  It means, at the same time, both more and less than “factual.”  Something can be factual without being true.  And something can be true without being factual.

I’m reminded of the TV ad that Mitt Romney ran at the end of the recent Presidential campaign.  Here’s the text:

Barack Obama says he saved the auto industry. But for who? Ohio or China. Under President Obama, GM cut 15,000 American jobs, but they are planning to double the number of cars built in China, which means 15,000 more jobs for China. And now comes word that Chrysler plans to start making Jeeps in, you guessed it, China.

Of course, a core element of the Obama campaign was to take credit for the auto industry rescue that, according to the campaign, saved anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of jobs.  The Romney ad was clearly designed to undermine that message.  And, as the Romney campaign was quick to point out when challenged, the ad was factual.  But was it true?

General Motors spokesperson, Greg Martin, thought not.  He said:

We’ve clearly entered some parallel universe during these last few days. No amount of campaign politics at its cynical worst will diminish our record of creating jobs in the U.S. and repatriating profits back to this country.

Obviously, what was missing in the ad was a causal relationship among the facts presented.  That made the ad factual, but fundamental untrue, to the degree the strong implication is left that Obama was responsible for causing GM to move jobs from Ohio to China.

On the other hand, something can be true without being factual.  The best example of that would be in the realm of religion where what’s true in the mind of the believer cannot be proven by facts.

But let’s consider another concept that emanates from the same root as “true” and that is “truthiness,” famously coined by Steven Colbert.

Stephen Colbert Truthiness

Wikipedia defines truthiness as:

A quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

Is there any doubt which of these concepts drives politics in America today?  The ideological warfare that has typified debate in Washington in recent years is clearly not based on what is true.  Almost by definition, ideologues do not rest their political positions on what’s true in the classic definition of the word.  Instead of facts leading to the larger concept of truth, their individual truth leads them to the facts that will support their own truthiness.

Throughout history, our politics has represented a continuum from Liberal/Left to Conservative/Right.  Most of the time, our governing philosophy has resided somewhere around the middle, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right.  While there have always been extremist politicians at either end, there have always been a critical mass of political leaders gathered around the Center to allow us to govern ourselves.  And those at the Center generally had some commitment to operating, more or less, based on what is true.

Today’s politics feels different.   We have a left of center President, but a Congress that is paralyzed because there appears to be no working Center.   And while the Center is not necessarily the locus of what’s true, what’s true can generally be found in the vicinity of the Center.  Given the extremes that seem to rule our current politics, most of our debate is carried on there, in the land of Truthiness.

The chart below illustrates the problem.

Truth image


So, Fleishman Hillard’s new identity based on the Power of True has much to teach politicians.  As noted in the company’s description of this new concept:

Knowing what is true clarifies our vision and sets a moral compass. True separates right from wrong.

Are you listening Washington?