Fighting Mendacity in Politics: The Role of America’s Lawyers
Preview of a paper by Heidi Li Feldman, to be presented at Resurrecting Truth in American Law and Public Discourse: Shall These Bones Live?, Duquesne University School of Law, November 16-17, 2017.
American lawyers know much about truthfulness and untruthfulness. Their education schools them in these subjects, and virtually every area of legal practice involves understanding them. American lawyers must learn the nuances, forms, and mechanisms of mendacity because so much law prohibits lying, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, and more. Lawyers must counsel their clients regarding requirements of honesty, accuracy, informativeness, and disclosure. Lawyers themselves have professional obligations of candor, particularly towards tribunals.
Their professional status and their familiarity and skill with truthfulness and untruthfulness bestow obligations on American lawyers in the current political climate. Social media is rife with misdirection and disinformation; the sitting U.S. President is a known serial dissembler; high ranking officials deny basic science; government departments hide and remove information from their websites. Mendacity, evasion, deceit in aid of power are everywhere in evidence.
Under these conditions, American lawyers should identify, expose, and explain untruthfulness. They should force truthfulness from politicians, elected and appointed officials, commentators, pundits and activists. In short, America’s lawyers should act as advocates for truthfulness in political discourse. My arguments for the special role of lawyers will not rely on strong metaphysical or ontological claims about truth, values, or law. With a mundane approach to truth, I will explore the role of truthfulness in subverting ideology and in grounding dissent from power. Via examples, I will demonstrate how lawyers’ knowledge and skills can especially aid in these efforts.
Lawyers are to the current onslaught of political mendacity what physicians are to public health emergencies. Responsible, democratically accountable governance is impossible without great measures of truthfulness. While all citizens should, therefore, strive for and demand truthfulness in politics, American lawyers, trained in the rule of law in the American constitutional system, owe that system their care and attention, marshalling their expertise in the cause of truthfulness in politics.