There has always been a tension between politics and truth-telling. No one who undertakes the special obligation of caring for the community can afford the luxury of perfect honesty. A statesman who is
not willing to tell a petty lie to save his state from annihilation is not fit for political office.
But it is one thing to deceive one's external enemies and another thing to deceive one's political opponents and fellow citizens in the selfish pursuit of personal power. Lies and deceptions that are purely self-serving degrade the political realm and lend credence to the adage that crime pays, but politics pays more. And this explains why politicians are so often held in low esteem.
But the problem of politics and truth is not simply a function of the abundance of unscrupulous Machiavellian politicians; it is far more intractable. It is connected to the profound skepticism about truth that characterizes our postmodern world. The motto of the postmodern world is that every truth is someone's truth and every justice is someone's justice. In a world without truth, the creative art rules supreme. In such a world, what could be more creative than lying? After all, a great lie, one that one that is believed, gives form to the void, imposes order on chaos, and creates the world out of nothing.
In such a world, truth is construction. Lying is simply creativity.
In Such a world, politics is no longer the domain of judicious lying, or lying to the enemy to ensure survival or avert annihilation. Lying has become synonymous with politics and the latter pervades all aspects of life. But not everyone is equal in the art of creative lying. Those who excel will no doubt subvert the truths of the defeated. In the end, the superior few will triumph and truth will be simply the interest of the stronger--that is, the most skilled and most creative liars.
Politics provides the best opportunity for the art of shaping reality. Politics is now the art of strategy, tactics, appearances, and platforms intended to shape the opinions of the electorate. This used to be called propaganda, but now it is politics as usual. Political scientists and self-styled experts have turned campaign strategy into a profitable commercial enterprise. Our leaders are increasingly relying on the professional panderers, image-makers, spin-doctors, manufacturers of charisma, and a plethora of other masters of manipulation.
What does this state of affairs mean for democracy? It seems to me that the new state of affairs panders to populism, not democracy. The two are connected but should not be confused. Populism is the corruption of democracy. Populism deifies the will of people; it insists that the will of the people must be sovereign, but it does not care how that will is manufactured. Populism is therefore quite compatible with demagoguery and deception.
The new state of affairs also destroys every reason that would justify or recommend democracy as a form of government. Traditionally, democracy was defended in the following ways. Two heads are better than one; the common sense of the people coming together to deliberate the issues of their collective life are likely to display more wisdom than experts. Moreover, political participation is integral to the cultivation of our rational and moral capacities, which are distinctively human. And, political participation is integral to human happiness, since it satisfies the human instincts for gregariousness and its attending need for community and belonging. Besides, political participation creates a feeling of community that undermines the sense of loss and isolation that plagues modern men and women.
To be a democrat means treating people with respect as rational persons and not as an irrational bundle of appetites; it means ensuring that the people are well informed enough to make an intelligent decision; it means appealing to people's sense of justice, not hatred; it means not resorting to scapegoats; it means not pretending that there are solutions to the unavoidable frustrations of life; it means not appealing to collective pride to pit one part of the country against the other; it means appealing to the best rather than the worst in people.
Democracy always risks the appearance of demagogues who exploit the lowest sentiments of the people, demagogues who take advantage of people's pride, anger, resentment and frustrations. And even the best statesmen are tempted by the promise of success that such tactics might yield.
But it may well be that honesty and veracity are more resilient and more appealing than politicians believe. Let us hope that the tactics that debase politics and rob democracy of any justification will backfire and that the noblest politicians will triumph in this election.