Why Our Politicians Can't Stop Lying
One of the odder consequences of the tangle of distortions, deceptions and fabrications that prepared the way for the US declaration of war on Iraq in 2003 has been a renewed scrutiny of the many flavors and uses of mendacity in political life. Some of these investigations have been narrowly focused on enumerating the many damaging fibs perpetrated by President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team to manufacture public consent for a war they knew to be a hard sell on evidence alone. But others have taken the form of reflections on lying itself—as much to parse its varied modern guises as to reconsider its effects. A few years ago, television comedian Stephen Colbert began offering late-night cable audiences amusing, bitter lessons in “truthiness,” his term for a gut feeling about what constitutes truth in the absence of any real logic or proof. As Martin Jay points out in his erudite The Virtues of Mendacity, Colbert’s neologism was intended to capture the particular spirit of our times. In his brief Why Leaders Lie, John Mearsheimer has similarly extrapolated outward from specific cases, taking to heart Hannah Arendt’s famous maxim that “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues” and creating a veritable catalog of recent justifications for lying in office. According to Mearsheimer, a foreign policy expert, lying in interstate relations is actually considerably less prevalent, or dangerous, or even frowned upon, than might otherwise be assumed. More worrisome is when elected leaders spread falsehoods about international affairs and engage in fear-mongering on the home front, as happened during the Bush years. Such lies produce not only political debacles, Mearsheimer asserts, but also a culture of dishonesty in which trust in policy-makers and, potentially, democratic governance is undermined.
In a presidential election year such as the present one, however, we tend to fixate on deceptions of a different sort: the lies told by candidates rather than by those already securely in power, misrepresentations of self rather than of the world at large. And this year’s presidential aspirants have already provided a bumper crop for our consideration. In Newt Gingrich we had, for a few months, a prime example of the kind of political dishonesty that is easiest to expose: “serial hypocrisy” (as Ron Paul labeled it), or preaching one thing on the campaign trail and practicing another in private life. Exhibit A could be Gingrich on the stump earlier this year excoriating the profligacy of Freddie Mac, the very mortgage giant that had recently paid him handsomely for his work as a consulting “historian.” Exhibit B, in a shift from financial to libidinous hypocrisy, might well be Gingrich’s attempt as speaker of the House to impeach then-President Bill Clinton over sexual indiscretions committed in the White House—even as Gingrich was quietly cheating on wife No. 2 by sleeping with his own very junior staffer, soon to become wife No. 3.
Personal hypocrisy, though, is just one type of dishonesty common among politicians, and perhaps not the most worrisome. As David Runciman argues in Political Hypocrisy, there is a special kind of dishonesty associated with misrepresenting oneself entirely in one’s political capacity. Is there a better model of this type than the flip-flopping, shape-shifting Mitt Romney, who eagerly denies responsibility both for his past accomplishments and his past positions, thus leaving the public mystified as to who—if anyone—the politician might be, or which of his many contradictory statements count as true? Earlier this year, while moving hard to the right, Romney eagerly shed the positions he’d held as a former healthcare-reforming governor of Massachusetts. Lately he’s been busy reversing course, insisting that he’s always been in favor of government subsidies for student loans despite his earlier statements to the contrary, and arguing that he deserves a large share of the intellectual credit for bailing out the auto industry, despite having written a New York Times op-ed called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Yet Runciman is careful not to suggest that hypocrisy is the particular vice of any one segment of the political spectrum. He describes a very similar set of lies that figured in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, paying special attention to Hillary Clinton as an Ã¼ber-hypocrite—before praising her particular form of hypocrisy (having a totally phony public persona, but knowing it) over that of her husband (as a sincere and thus self-deceiving liar). Moreover, Runciman’s scorn for politicians passing off foregone political decisions as the result of personal agonizing—not to mention complex ethical problems as morally obvious—would seem made to fit President Obama’s recent calculated declarations on gay marriage.
The prevalence of deception may be the great irony of democratic politics. A foundational principle of liberal democracies such as the United States is that, unlike totalitarian states, they require transparency, accountability, and trust between representatives and the represented—not the webs of secrecy and lies characteristic of authoritarian regimes past or present. Or at least such has been the claim since the eighteenth century. Yet politicians and elected officials rank right up there with used-car salesmen in terms of the public’s confidence in their words, especially when boasting of their own honesty and integrity. And lying—meaning an intentional deception of one sort or other, whether through phrases, gestures, actions, or even inactions and silences—seems to be more prevalent in politics than in almost any other area of public life, with the possible exception of advertising. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street started from the premise that politics has become, a few exceptional figures to the contrary, one big, immoral con. This is a sentiment with deep roots in the well-documented corruptions of the Vietnam War and the Watergate era, and even deeper roots in the suspicions about power written into America’s original political creed. We may well know rationally that fraudulent language and behavior are no more prevalent in contemporary America than anywhere else or at any other time; Machiavelli, after all, wrote the book on successful political lying in sixteenth-century Florence. Overt mendacity may actually be harder to get away with now than in the past given the rise in scrutiny of public figures. But as Runciman points out, political hypocrisy is often identified today—especially by hypocrites around the world—as a peculiarly modern American vice.
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Moralists tend to see every political lie, no matter how minor, as an ethical crime. Either it compromises the integrity of the individual in question, or it undermines democratic values and fosters a culture of deception and mistrust. As Mearsheimer points out, to accuse someone of lying in our contemporary ethical climate is so strong an allegation that euphemisms (think of “less than forthcoming” or “not entirely straightforward”) are often used to intimate that a person is being dishonest. Cynics, by contrast, are not flustered by the likes of Gingrich, Romney or Bill Clinton, seeing the lying politician as the embodiment of a fundamental truth about politics. Jay repeats the classic joke of the political realist: “How can you tell when a politician is lying? He moves his lips.” Then there are a few contrarian intellectuals—among them Mearsheimer, Runciman and Jay—who, despite their shared outrage at the Bush administration’s deceptive, top-down fearmongering, insist that not all types of lying are alike. Moreover, tolerance for a little political mendacity, especially of the right kind, may not be such a bad thing when you consider the alternative: a politics of coercive truth-telling and sincerity, of little red books, groupthink and purges.
To make the case, Runciman and Jay start from the position that there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, they both offer extended histories not of lying in politics (which, as Mearsheimer points out, only comes to our attention when it fails to convince), but of high-minded reflections on lying in politics. In keeping with their contrarian approach, however, they also catalog the sheer variety of the kinds of lies, functions of lies and conceptions about lying before making a utilitarian case for the benefits of mendacity in certain circumstances. Their aim is to make this argument without falling back on the anti-democratic, Straussian position that each of them rejects (but that Jay alone explicates): the people don’t always know what’s in their best interests, and some lies from on high are actually perpetrated for the people’s own good, not the least of which is maintaining public order.
For Runciman, the best guide for distinguishing between harmful lies and useful mendacity is the Anglo-American liberal tradition—the strain of modern political thought seemingly most attached to the idea of politics as the realm of truth-telling and interpersonal trust. His singular claim is that many great figures in this tradition going back to Hobbes (though not to Locke) thought long and hard about a problem that persists to this day: how much lying can we tolerate—and when, what kinds and why? Or as he more cynically puts it: “What sorts of hypocrites [do] we want our politicians to be?” His survey of the great liberal thinkers of the past 350 years, including novelists, philosophers and politicians, is intended to provide nothing less than a “practical guide” (in the author’s words) for dealing with political hypocrisy in our own time.
But it is Bernard Mandeville, a creature of the first age of true party politics, who emerges as Runciman’s unlikely touchstone, in part because Mandeville was able to draw out the practical implications of Hobbes’s claims. Both by scrutinizing the sham moralizing of his Tory enemies in the power struggles of early eighteenth-century England and by looking back to Oliver Cromwell, that “vile, wicked Hypocrite, who, under the cloak of Sanctity broke through all Human and Divine laws to aggrandize himself,” Mandeville came to the conclusion that one can distinguish between more and less benign forms of hypocrisy. What deserves special censure is hypocrisy about hypocrisy—attacking the morals of one’s opponents while making a fetish of one’s own supposed virtue. The “second order” hypocrite, playing on the people’s desire for sincerity and knowingly and falsely painting himself as the only respectable man in a crooked world, soils the stables that he professes to have cleaned.
In Runciman’s telling, it was the leaders of the subsequent generation of revolutionaries in America who devoted themselves—with only partial success—to trying to work out what a successful injunction against hypocrisy (i.e., one that did not itself fall prey to hypocrisy) might be. But Runciman’s point is weakened by his startling statement that, owing to the contradictions created by slavery, “no event in modern political history has been so marked by the problem of hypocrisy as the American Revolution.” The ahistoricity of this claim serves to remind us that what counts as hypocrisy is always open to judgment and subject to change. Slaves, after all, were not the only group of people left out of equal-rights claims in the late eighteenth century, and plenty of committed revolutionaries, regrettably but honestly, spent little time worrying about their own political commitments in light of the continued existence of human bondage in Europe’s settler colonies.
Finally, after scrutinizing many of the nineteenth century’s patron saints of political honesty (here canonized as sages of acceptable and unavoidable forms of hypocrisy), Runciman arrives at the liberal anti-hypocrite par excellence, George Orwell. Should we be surprised that our greatest post-Bentham critic of the sort of platitudes and language games that mask the truth about power nevertheless saw that some aspects of hypocrisy were inevitable, especially in a democracy, and some not as dangerous as others? According to Runciman, even Orwell came to the conclusion, quite in keeping with Runciman’s own views, that a politics single-mindedly focused on anti-hypocrisy is not only self-defeating but a vice unto itself. Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is here transformed into a picture of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible because language has finally been emptied of all meaning. Indeed, in one of Runciman’s more intriguing formulations, fascism is redefined as imperialism that has shed its close relationship with hypocrisy and become honest about the workings of power, even as it perpetuates other lies.
Ever the consequentialist, Runciman cautions against worrying too much about any but the most potentially damaging varieties of deception. Yet he sidesteps a serious obstacle, which is that lies—and the extent of their damage—can generally only be identified in hindsight. Mainly, though, he advocates moving away from a politics of personality in which we insist above all on authenticity and sincerity of intention. Approvingly, he quotes the late political theorist Judith Shklar: “It is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong.” This is a message worth dwelling upon every election season.
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Jay does not disagree with Runciman’s view of political lying, though he is more sanguine about liberal institutions as safety valves. His aim is also to move away from moral absolutism in the realm of political life and its epistemology without compromising democratic ideals. But the route he takes to arrive at this position is different from Runciman’s. Jay, an intellectual historian, iconoclastically organizes his book around varying concepts of “the political” rather than a chronological parade of major thinkers. He also looks to a more heterogeneous collection of historical voices, from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant, to Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt. Indeed, it is the ideas of Arendt, who doesn’t fit neatly into the liberal tradition, that Jay principally (but by no means uncritically) draws upon for his historical as well as normative conclusions about lying in politics.
Jay, like Arendt, starts from a broad and distinctive reading of the past. Not for him Runciman’s limited focus on English political thought or Mearsheimer’s on events from recent years alone. Instead, Jay begins by trying to explain the obsessive concern with publicity, sincerity and the “zeal for truthfulness” (in Arendt’s words) that has characterized Western modernity since the late eighteenth century. The historian Perez Zagorin may have been correct in claiming that Europe’s early modern era could properly be labeled the Age of Dissimulation, given its chief architects’ fixation on various kinds of deception and secrecy. Even the Enlightenment had a complex, tactical relationship to truth. Consider the case (though Jay does not) of the great eighteenth-century atheist, the Baron d’Holbach, breathlessly exposing the lie of Christianity and the falsity of God at the same time that he, in a decade-long act of subterfuge, smuggled a stream of heretical manuscripts out of France and published them under phony names with deliberately misleading places of publication. But according to Jay, all of that dissembling came to an end, at least as an accepted, necessary part of public life, with the Age of Revolutions.
In the American case, Puritanism, with its fixation on moral surveillance and its strident anti-Catholicism, produced the first sustained attack on the politics of deception. The rejection of an aristocratic culture of refined politeness in favor of “plain speech” marked the second. The politics of the revolutionary era made a virtue out of “ruthless sincerity” and directness. The new nation’s Constitution needed to be not only a public document but also explicit and easily comprehensible. Great American leaders, from Washington to Lincoln, had to be paragons of personal honesty.
In France, too, the mood changed. Even without any Puritan impetus, eighteenth-century revolutionaries turned against a seemingly hyperfeminine and baroque court culture in which dissimulation and intrigue reigned. What replaced it in private and public life alike, Jay explains, was a Rousseauian transparency and an austere, seemingly masculine, anti-rhetorical pose. This was a shift whose significance Edmund Burke, with his elegiac dismay at the end of all “pleasing illusions” in French political culture, was among the first to recognize. (Runciman’s quick dismissal of Burke for his “loss of judgment” on this subject seems oddly misplaced.) A Rousseau-like commitment to honesty in its many forms has endured to become a hallmark of modern democracy, where, as Jay notes, quoting La Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
Jay sees our contemporary attachment to political “science” and technocracy as one more (doomed) effort to isolate the absolute, unvarnished truth and put it in the service of a pure democratic politics. He might also have looked to the enduring populist attachment to answers derived from the people’s common sense. Both promise today, in different ways, to solve the problem of phoniness and deception in politics once and for all. Yet the political lie has not only endured but prospered. So what is to be done? Jay thinks the classical liberal intellectual tradition, with its insistence on the ideal of rational consensus, holds few answers. He is more warmly disposed toward those theoretical stances that acknowledge the various fictions at the core of each and every political vision. That category includes the strain of recent thought that sees politics itself as a form of theater in which masking and a certain amount of dissimulation and hypocrisy are vital, whether in forming coalitions or simply in preserving the illusion of representation. Precedents extend all the way back to Hobbes’s great insight about the king’s double act as the ruler and as one of the people. Mainly, though, Jay sides with modern republicans like Arendt who, while denouncing certain kinds of lying, found a way to make principled defenses of others.
Jay follows Arendt closely in stressing the potential value of lying from below—that is, prevarication on the part of private individuals in an effort to resist the inquisitorial authority of the church or state, whether it be the Baron d’Holbach evading the censors of the Old Regime or citizens today challenging various democratically endorsed surveillance techniques. In fact, from this perspective, lying can sometimes look like a way to encourage a better future. And like Runciman (though based on different political premises), Jay ultimately emphasizes the value of pluralism of opinion, debate and rhetoric, even at its most misleading, over the search for perfect truthfulness. Robespierre’s lethal efforts to eradicate the boundaries around private life and to annihilate even the smallest trace of doublespeak or two-facedness stand here as the chief warning to anyone eager to crusade against political lies in the service of democracy. There must remain some things we can be disingenuous about, namely the impulses of our hearts. Put differently, falsehoods need their space, too—despite utopian aspirations to the contrary. Otherwise, we get the Reign of Terror. This is a central message of Arendt’s On Revolution (1963).
Yet beyond repeating this cautionary tale, Jay does not offer much in the way of hope. And what optimism he does retain in his fascinating history of politics’ enduring struggle with lying turns out to be very much of a piece with conventional liberalism. To his way of thinking, the best strategy for exposing the most damaging kinds of untruth is to sustain a free press, an independent court system and the open academic culture of our universities—and to try to simply live with the rest. But Runciman, the explicit champion of liberalism, is probably correct in saying that in a climate of round-the-clock news reporting, with its vicious circle of lying and “gotcha” coverage, journalists are often the willing purveyors of hypocrisy. The realist in Mearsheimer also suggests that any democratic state trying to live up to its exalted morals but eager to engage in an “ambitious foreign policy”—that is to say, the United States—is also likely soon to be ratcheting up its fearmongering, cover-ups, spin and public lying. All we can do, in his estimation, is to hope that we can eventually vote the worst offenders out of office. It seems that “truthiness,” serial hypocrisy and their close cousins are the price that must be paid for democracy.