It would not be remarkable to observe that politicians lie. Many people lie. What is remarkable is that politicians keep telling the same lies over and over again. Few people do this. (Donald Trump, who tells a new lie almost every time he opens his mouth, is not a counterexample to this observation because he is not really a politician.)
I am unable to recall a time when politicians were not promising to balance the budget by eliminating “fraud, waste, and abuse,” or to help the poor by increasing the budget of a federal program, or to create energy self-sufficiency, or to stem the tide of illegal immigration by controlling the border, or to reduce gun violence by adopting stronger gun control measures, or…you get the idea.
Now, politicians are generally not stupid people. If there is one thing they know well, it is how to get people to vote for them. So if they are constantly repeating assertions that consistently turn out to be false, it must be because doing so has this effect. But why? Why does the public never seem to catch on? To answer this question, I want to describe something I call the “20 minutes game.”
My Little Rendezvous with Dishonesty
My first job after graduating from college was as a soccer coach. And when I later went to law school and graduate school, I continued to run a soccer program in the summer at a camp in western Connecticut. Most of the boys in this program came from the suburbs of New York City, and at the beginning of the summer we used to pick the campers up in passenger buses that could seat 40-50 boys and transport them to camp. The drive to camp usually took around two and a half hours.
The boys ranged in age from seven to fifteen. And it never took very long for the younger boys to become impatient and come up to me in the front of the bus to ask, “How long until we get to camp?” At first, I used to answer this question truthfully, but I learned that saying “two hours” or an “hour and a half” seemed like forever to the boys and sometimes upset them. So with a bit of experience, I adopted the following policy. Whenever any boy asked me how long until we get to camp, I would say “20 minutes.” This answer was always satisfactory. It did not seem like a long time to the boys, but it was long enough so they would forget about it for considerably longer than 20 minutes.
Over the course of the trip, boys would come up one by one to ask how long until we got to camp. I responded “20 minutes” to all of them, and everyone was happy. Eventually, one of the first boys to ask would realize that it had been longer than 20 minutes and would come back to again ask “how long until we get to camp?” When I again said “20 minutes,” he would say, “but that’s what you said last time.” To this my stock response was, “Yes, but it’s 20 minutes from now.” Remarkably, this worked, and I would repeat it to each boy who asked the question a second time.
Now, as the trip wore on and we got closer to camp, the scheme would eventually break down. One boy would ask another what I said, word would spread until finally most of the boys caught on to what I was doing. By the end of the trip whenever anyone asked how long until we get to camp, a chorus of voices would call out “20 minutes” and everyone would laugh.
But the reason the boys caught on was because it was the same group of boys on the bus for the entire trip. Imagine instead that every hour or so, the boys on the bus the longest got off and a new group of boys got on. In that scenario, I believe that I could keep playing the 20 minutes game indefinitely.
My Life as a Camp Counselor—Applied to Politics
Electoral politics is like the latter version of the 20 minutes game. Every election cycle, a new group of young voters begin to cast their votes. And every election cycle, a certain percentage of the older voters who have finally caught on to the game stop paying attention to what the politicians say and simply cast their votes out of habit—if they vote at all.
As a result, politicians get to answer both “20 minutes” and “20 minutes from now” forever, without having to worry about most of the voters realizing that it is a game.
When I used to tell the boys the truth that the camp was two hours away, they were disappointed. When I told them “20 minutes,” they went away happy—which was great for me.
Similarly, politicians remain politicians by getting people to vote for them. They could tell people the disappointing truth that balancing the budget will take decades and require significant cuts in services and additional taxes. Or they could tell them that they will balance the budget by eliminating fraud, waste, and abuse, and make them happy. Which is more likely to generate votes? And by the time the older voters come back to ask for the third time how long it is going to take, there will be a whole new group of voters hearing the answer for the first or second time.
Why do politicians keep telling the same lies? Because electoral politics is the 20 minutes game writ large.