Vote hypocrite

In times like these, America needs a politician who isn't afraid to fake it.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Runciman
February 3, 2008

AS THE PRESIDENTIAL primary season enters its critical phase, the air is thick with accusations and counter-accusations that the candidates don't practice what they preach. In what is now an inevitable feature of presidential politics, the leading contenders are desperate to pin on one another the toxic label of hypocrite.

Mitt Romney, the scourge of illegal immigrants, turns out to have hired a private gardening firm that employs many of them. John McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts on the grounds they favored the rich; now he insists they be made permanent. Barack Obama is stoutly against the Iraq war but voted to fund it as a senator; Hillary Clinton, similarly, is now running against the very war she gave the president authority to wage.

In fact, none of the plausible candidates is immune to the charge of adopting positions that don't square with some aspect of their past. Some candidates, like Clinton and Romney, attract particular suspicion because it is so hard to know what they truly believe - every pronouncement seems to have been market-tested in a way that ensures the underlying personality, the true beliefs of the person uttering the words, never come through at all. Our politics seem awash with hypocrisy, which leads us to suspect that honesty and integrity are increasingly rare qualities in public life.

But is hypocrisy really so bad? Given what it takes to get elected, and what we expect of politicians once in office, we may want to think again about political hypocrisy. Hypocrisy may not be an attractive human quality, but in politics, it is often a desirable one - and may sometimes be better than the alternative.

Hypocrites, in constructing an electable persona for themselves, are clearly demonstrating that they understand their personal limitations. They recognize the need to adapt what they happen to believe to what is politically prudent. So it's possible to see hypocrisy as evidence of politicians who will do what they say once in office because they set no special premium by their private preferences.

Our instinctive dislike of hypocrisy can get in the way of seeing what is really at stake when it comes to choosing a leader. Indeed, we might even make better decisions if we could realize that far from being a liability in a leader, hypocrisy is an essential part of democratic politics.

. . .

Through the history of politics, the term hypocrite has invariably been one of abuse. The original hypocrites were the stage actors of ancient Greece, who wore masks and made a profession of pretending to be something they were not. Ever since, politicians who have tried to conceal some part of themselves - their checkered past, their private habits, their personal beliefs - have found themselves accused of hypocrisy. Since most politicians have something to hide, the accusations keep coming.

Given how ubiquitous hypocrisy is in politics, why do we still think of it as such a deal-breaker? Part of our dislike is a visceral response to being taken for fools. In a democratic society, as Tocqueville was one of the first to notice, the worst vice of all is condescension because it makes a mockery of our desire to be treated as equals by our elected leaders. Hypocrites appear to be excepting themselves from the standards they see as fit for public consumption.

But behind this is a deeper sense that hypocrisy is not just a form of condescension, but a kind of deception, and is symptomatic of a secretive and duplicitous personality. Anyone who wears a mask, after all, makes it impossible to know what the person behind the mask is really like.

One kind of mask is the mismatch between private actions and public appearances, as with Romney and his gardeners. But this preoccupation is a fairly recent phenomenon, fueled by the Internet and 24-hours news, which make the private lives of politicians much easier to scrutinize.

The longer-standing view of hypocrisy is that it concerns not private actions but private beliefs. A hypocrite is a person who hides his or her true beliefs behind a facade of useful platitudes.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, this anxiety fixed on religion and the fear that atheists would inveigle their way into politics by going through the motions of public piety. But gradually our concern has morphed into a more generalized anxiety about political honesty. If politicians mouth platitudes to get elected, how can we trust them to do what they say once in office? We also sense that they be unworthy of the highest offices: We want to believe there is an honesty at the heart of our politics. Hence our innate suspicion of politicians who put an artificial face forward.

When the hypocrisy is flagrant enough it can bring down a candidacy - even if the deception is completely irrelevant to governance. Joe Biden's 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination never recovered after he made a speech recounting the sincere personal pride he felt in his family history, which turned out to have been plagiarized from the family history of the British Labor leader Neil Kinnock. Despite a distinguished career in the Senate since then, Biden's miserable showing in the recent Iowa caucus shows that he still hasn't recovered.

. . .

Accusing opponents of hypocrisy is clearly an effective campaign weapon. But is rooting out hypocrites really the best way of choosing leaders? Effective leadership is about good judgment, foresight, and the ability to adapt to whatever the world might throw at you. Being possessed of personal integrity does not necessarily guarantee any of these other qualities. Sometimes, the hypocrite looks like a better bet.

To understand why, we need to ask what exactly it is that we think we prefer to hypocrisy. If the contrast is with consistency - if we worry that hypocrites will turn out to be flip-floppers who won't stick to any position once it ceases to be convenient - then we might ask what is so inherently desirable about consistency. Hypocrites tailor their public face to suit the needs of the moment, true. But at heart, that amounts to adaptability - a crucial trait in a political leader.

By contrast, politicians who set great store by personal consistency have to do one of two things, both of which may be worse. They can maintain their honesty by constantly changing what they actually believe to suit changing political requirements. A politician whose true beliefs shift so easily never needs to lie about them, but may be far less reliable than the hypocrite.

The other alternative is the leader whose beliefs are simple enough to run through everything they say. If we don't want our politicians to change their minds, we have to ensure that their minds are uncluttered by anything that might force them to rethink. An uncluttered mind is occasionally an aid to clear thought and effective decision-making, but it would be naive to see it as the supreme qualification for leadership.

In his new book about the occupation of Iraq, "Defeat," Jonathan Steele describes a meeting before the 2003 invasion between Tony Blair and a group of British academic experts on Iraqi politics and society, who tried to warn him that occupying Iraq would be fiendishly difficult. One of them, Toby Dodge, recalls Blair's response as he received this message. "He looked at me and said, 'But the man's uniquely evil, isn't he?' I was a bit non-plussed. It didn't seem to be very relevant." Another, Charles Tripp, says that Blair "wanted us to reinforce his gut instinct that Saddam was a monster."

There is no doubt that Blair was sincere in these beliefs, and that he therefore acted, as he has repeatedly said, "in good faith" throughout. The same is almost certainly true of George W. Bush, who like Blair grounded his convictions in his genuine religious faith. Nevertheless, both men could sustain their convictions only by ignoring the evidence. Neither was a hypocrite, and both held the course on Iraq with near perfect consistency. But the results, nearly five years later, suggest there are worse things than hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy can also be contrasted with sincerity, or the authenticity of emotions and inner convictions. When Hillary Clinton welled up in a cafe in New Hampshire at the low point of her campaign, the question everyone wanted answered was whether the sudden display of emotion was genuine. For all those who believed that it was, this was a clear plus point, the moment when the real Hillary came through. For everyone who thought the tears were fake, this was just more evidence that Hillary was a hypocrite, and nothing about her candidacy could be taken at face value.

But the ability to deploy outward signs of emotion while remaining in control of feelings that lie beneath is a political gift, not a political weakness. This was a theme that ran through the career of one of England's greatest politicians, but also greatest hypocrites, Oliver Cromwell, the man who defeated Charles I in the English Civil War and became lord protector of England. For Cromwell's enemies, his readiness with tears, particularly at moments of political crisis, was a sign that he was deeply unreliable. But for his admirers - who would later include American founders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - Cromwell's distinguishing characteristic was his mastery of the requirements of personal leadership, which he used to advance the cause of freedom. He understood that popular politics needed displays of emotion, but that effective politics required self-control.

Jefferson himself was a consummate political actor, despite his public insistence that what counted in politics was personal sincerity. He took care to hide his vulnerable emotions - including his bursts of anger and his nervousness about speaking in public - behind the dignity of his office. It was only the useful emotions, like his sympathy and his republican fervor, that he allowed to come through.

. . .

Jefferson and Cromwell were among the greatest leaders their countries produced. Yet we continue to see hypocrisy as a greater character flaw in potential leaders than simplemindedness or pigheadedness.

Perhaps we should ask not what this says about the politicians but what it says about us. We can dress up our dislike of hypocrisy in principled terms, and spout pieties about the importance of trust and integrity. But we need to recognize that along with hating hypocrisy, we love it as well - that is, we love seeing it exposed. Who hasn't watched with satisfaction as a politician is hoisted by his own petard? But part of the pleasure, if we are honest with ourselves, is schadenfreude, and comes from our relief that we are not subject to the same standards.

Which parent, or employer, or friend, can truly say that they always practice what they preach? Yet which of us thinks that we should therefore be disqualified from telling other people what to do? Our aversion to hypocrisy when it comes to politics coexists with a widespread tolerance of hypocrisy when it comes to ourselves. That means our antihypocrisy is ultimately self-defeating, because it makes hypocrites of us all.

To say that we shouldn't fear hypocrisy doesn't mean that we should tolerate stupid or destructive hypocrisy in politics. It is not a good idea for a politician to rail against gay rights if he can't keep his feet to himself when using a stall in a public bathroom. But this is a bad idea not because it is hypocrisy, but because it suggests self-delusion rather than self-awareness.

Some hypocrisy in politics simply doesn't matter much, like Mitt Romney's difficulties with his gardeners, which tells us little about the kind of president he might make. And some hypocrisy in politics may be positively beneficial, as when politicians hold back some part of themselves from the prying gaze of the public, and aren't afraid to let go of their own convictions when the evidence suggests they might be wrong.

Hypocrites who spend time preparing a mask for themselves that can survive whatever politics throws at them may be better equipped for leadership than politicians who think that the most important thing is to let the voters see their true face. Elections shouldn't be about sifting out the hypocrites in an elusive search for the candidates of integrity. They should be about deciding which sort of hypocrite we prefer, and which sorts of hypocrites we want to be ourselves.

David Runciman is senior lecturer in politics at Cambridge University and the author of "Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond," to be published by Princeton in May.

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