“Post-Truth” and the Ethical Pedestal: How Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year Relates to Gender

When Nicholas Kristof asked the question “Is Hillary Clinton Dishonest?” back in April, it was clear that voters thought she was. When they heard “Hillary Clinton,” the top reaction, according to a Gallup survey, was “dishonest/liar/don’t trust her/poor character.” This impression didn’t improve as the campaign went on: In general election exit polls, 61% of voters claimed Clinton was not honest or trustworthy.

Clinton wasn’t the only candidate facing this problem. According to those same exit polls, only 33% of voters said Donald Trump was honest and trustworthy. For Trump, however, accusations of mistruths never stuck, despite Politifact finding that Trump made more than four times as many “False” or “Pants on Fire” statements as Clinton.

The increased availability of fake news (there’s a reason “post-truth” was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year) played a role, but we can’t dismiss the inconvenient truth that gender was a factor.

As I discussed at The Politics of Gender: Women, Men and the 2016 Campaign last week, voters have heightened expectations for women politicians when it comes to honesty and ethics. Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has consistently shown that voters put women on a character pedestal, expecting women to be more moral, more honest, and more trustworthy than men.

While the mythology of women as the “virtuous sex” is long and storied, this double standard has very real consequences for women running for office today: If voters even perceive that a woman has been dishonest or acted unethically, regardless of her actual actions, the cost is high for the candidate. Although men are also subject to character attacks, it’s more difficult for women to move past those types of criticisms. We saw that over and over in this presidential election: Clinton was unable to change public perceptions regarding her honesty and trustworthiness, despite fact checks that indicated she did tell the truth more than Trump did. Voters had already accepted the narrative that supported Trump’s moniker for Clinton, “Crooked Hillary.”

The idea of “post-truth” is not new or specific to this election. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” post-truth has always described the relationship between women politicians and voter perceptions of honesty. Voter beliefs about a woman’s trustworthiness matter more than actual facts about her trustworthiness. For voters, perception is reality.