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An 'inevitable' part of democratic life

Hypocrisy, a professor argues, is something we have to live with in our political leaders.

David Runciman
David RuncimanRead more

The Mask of Power From Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond

By David Runciman

Princeton University Press.

272 pp. $29.95

Barack Obama mocked Hillary Clinton's foreign policy expertise until he didn't.

Hillary Clinton savaged Obama's ability until she praised it.

John McCain vaunted Sarah Palin as the best person in the country (after him) to be president until he lost, whereupon he declined to back her in 2012.

And Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich? Well, he told lots of kids, when he visited their schools, that it's important to talk nice.

We don't expect politicians to be honest. A more difficult issue is whether we want them to be. Would terminal sincerity in a politician count as a mental defect, given the truth that consistent honesty in life ("Why, Grandmother, you look like you're on the verge of death!") is neither kind nor welcome, let alone efficient?

Journalists and pundits notoriously pounce on any evidence of hypocrisy - e.g., anti-gay senator assumes the position in a men's-room stall - despite often checkered reputations for honesty themselves. University of Cambridge political theorist David Runciman takes a far more textured, sophisticated approach to the phenomenon in

Political Hypocrisy

, a timely, long overdue study of one of public life's in-your-face puzzles.

Hypocrisy, according to Runciman, is "inevitable" and "ubiquitous" in liberal, democratic societies. It's also, he argues more surprisingly, "something we have to learn to live with" rather than eliminate. A greater risk, he believes, is not recognizing that "too great a reliance" on public sincerity - too much sanctimony - is a mistake, because "liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with a certain amount of dissimulation and pretence."

What we need, Runciman asserts, are sharp antennae that distinguish appropriate political hypocrisies from "intolerable" ones. There is, he contends, "no way of breaking out from the hypocrisy of political life, and all attempts to find such an escape are a delusion."

Runciman thus resists, in good Wittgensteinian fashion, a "catch-all" definition of hypocrisy. Instead, he proceeds historically, explaining that the "original 'hypocrits' were classical stage actors, and the Greek term (


) meant the playing of a part."

The word's earliest extension from theater came in religion, in regard to "public (and often highly theatrical) professions of religious faith by individuals who did not actually believe what they were saying."

These days, hypocrisy "in its pejorative sense always entails a deception of some kind," most often meaning "public statements of principle that do not coincide with an individual's private practices" or beliefs.

Runciman points out that there's "a tradition of thinking about the problem of hypocrisy in politics that runs from Hobbes to Orwell," and he mines it to reveal the concept's subtleties and address its logical conundrums.

If hypocrisy is, for instance, a "coping mechanism" for dealing with vice, might it be a venial sin? No sin at all? Must it involve a conscious intention to deceive, or can it be inadvertent? How does it differ from politeness and discretion - two forms of dishonesty we applaud - or, political "spin," which we treat as an up-front form of partisanship even when the spin distorts?

While some of Runciman's discussions expose intricacies in political philosophers such as Mandeville or Bentham that will mainly concern intellectuals, others produce more than enough insights to rivet any student of politics.

For Hobbes, as for the tradition generally, hypocrisy is always partly a matter of "hiding behind a mask," which statesmen need to do in the interest of preserving the public peace. Hobbes believed, Runciman writes, that sovereigns "must be prepared to dissemble, cheat and lie if necessary, in order to do what they think best for their own security, and the security of their state."

Francis Bacon, notes Runciman, in a related way thought "wisdom lies in getting the balance between honesty and deception right, so that a reputation for honesty is preserved while a capacity for deception is retained."

Others in the tradition contribute equally provocative angles on the subject. Mandeville argued that people often, in Runciman's words, "forget that they are being hypocritical, that their love is in fact concealed lust" - a psychological factor that may bar any judgment against them. Bentham inveighed against common, purposeless lies such as the Spanish courtesy, "

Mi casa es su casa

" ("My house is your house."), for making hypocrisy too reflexive.

In bringing the collective apercus of these thinkers to bear on his topic, Runciman also helpfully explores famous literary renditions of hypocrisy (among them Anthony Trollope's


novels), and profound historical examples of hypocrisy, such as the Founding Fathers' acceptance of slavery in a revolution devoted to liberty - a hypocrisy of which all sides in the revolution were "acutely conscious."

Here Runciman niftily contrasts the preternaturally candid Thomas Paine, who openly campaigned for "mental truthfulness," with a "very different kind of political operator," the "much more subtle, much more shrewd, much more 'cunning' " Thomas Jefferson.

We know how


relative careers worked out. (Robert G. Ingersoll famously lamented how only six mourners attended the 1809 funeral of Paine, by then "maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred.")

Yet Runciman, ever complex in his analysis, also pulls into the debate Benjamin Franklin, whose celebrated "simplicity" - not always the same as honesty - did quite well for him.

Such examples and observations return us to the question Runciman raises at the outset: "Do we really want to be governed or 'policed' by individuals who lack the guile of the seasoned politician?"

One thing is clear: According to the author, we don't have much choice. Guileless folk just aren't very good at winning, seizing or holding on to power.