In politics, as in life in general, truth-telling must be the default premise of any interaction. Lies, after all, are effective only against the background of an assumption that speakers sincerely mean what they say.
And yet, we also know that in the realm of human behavior we call politics, mendacity seems to play an especially prominent role. Or at least, accusations of it are so ubiquitous, emanating from every point on the political spectrum, that it has come to be seen as endemic to politics in all guises.
A few cynics aside, it is routinely decried as a vice, especially when the politics in question aspire to the transparency and accountability we associate with democracy. For those critics who want to hold politics to a higher moral standard than mere efficacy, refusing to allow laudable ends to be justified by dubious means, it is seen as a pathology that needs to be rooted out. For those who worry that lots of little lies will lead us down the path to the totalitarian “big lie,” any apparent increase in mendacity threatens the foundations of freedom itself.
But if we pause to consider its multiple functions and ask hard questions about the meaning of “the political,” to introduce a theoretical term of art much in fashion today, we can perhaps add nuance to our denunciations, maybe even acknowledge that in some ways and in some contexts lying can be understood as a political virtue.
The first question that needs to be addressed is “to whom is the truth owed?” Insofar as politics is an inevitably adversarial realm, sometimes even entailing outright existential conflict, the obligation to be candid cannot be universalized.
The Allies in World War II didn’t owe Hitler the truth about the invasion plans for D-Day. Insofar as politics often involves the resistance of the weak to the demands of the strong, mendacity may be a weapon in the struggle to avoid obliteration or end subjugation. Religions have often allowed mental reservations to excuse public proclamations of allegiances that are not honestly held in order to avoid martyrdom.
As the opening episode in the recent movie Inglourious Basterds demonstrates, telling the truth to a Nazi who asks if there are Jews hidden under your floorboards is not an act of moral rectitude. Competing moral codes may cancel the absolute prohibition on lying.
Moreover, insofar as politics may countenance a realm of private secrets — say, for whom we voted in an election or what our opinions about those in power might be — we are not obliged to be truthful when pressed to disclose our innermost thoughts. Telling lies to power, to reverse the reigning cliché, may have its place.
But what of those cases where those in power refuse to be truthful in their dealings with the masses? When they are corrupt and self-interested, no defense of mendacity can be plausibly advanced. But for those who conceptualize politics as inherently the exercise of wise governance, rulers may not always feel they owe those they rule full disclosure of their efforts to bring benign ends about. The tradition that stems from Plato’s defense of “noble lies” and which some claim has been revived in the neo-conservative embrace of the teachings of Leo Strauss — a by no means uncontested accusation — grants those in power the right, even the obligation, to propagate healthy myths for the public good.
For defenders of a more egalitarian politics, to be sure, the self-assertion of noble motives on the part of elites rings hollow. It too easily can slip into a justification for a belief in the permanent immaturity of the ruled, a brief for an inherently hierarchical politics, whether of a traditional oligarchy or an allegedly progressive vanguard.
Intuitively, defenders of democracy favor openness and integrity, as evidenced by our embracing the fable about George Washington’s candid admission to his father about his cherry tree-chopping transgression. It was, however, just that: a myth, an early indication of what might be called the link between democratic politics and aesthetic fabulation. For there can be little doubt that spin, image-making, rhetorical excess and outright duplicity have characterized the politics of our republic from its beginning.
In “The Virtues of Mendacity,” I suggest a number of reasons this affinity may not always be a sign of political failure. With the limited space I have here, I can only indicate one, which is the role hypocrisy plays in finding common ground to unite factions that have different values and interests, yet have to unite to win a majority of supporters in an election.
Our major parties are composed of loose coalitions and fragile alliances that need to rally around a candidate or a platform, even though there is a great deal of residual competition and even hostility. The public knows that enemies in primary fights, who accuse each other of the most unforgivable sins, will unite to face a common foe, quickly forgetting the accusations they made in the heat of the previous battle. At some point, either before or after the alliance is forged, someone is varnishing, if not utterly betraying the truth of what they believe and feel. But we give them a pass because we know that a genuine consensus based on rational deliberation is highly unlikely, and yet democratic politics requires building a winning coalition. Built into the process, in other words, is a meta-level understanding that truth-telling is not always the best policy in even the most democratic of political contexts.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Washington Post’s Political Bookworm.