Do as I say, not as I do - RSA

Do as I say, not as I do


Yesterday we had David Runciman discussing his book Political Hypocrisy. Then today, Mangus Linklater comments on a similar phenomena in The Times.

Runciman begins his thesis by arguing that the easiest way to defeat a political opponent is by showing them to be a hypocrite. He then takes us through a history of policital hypocrisy and ends by defining two types of hypocrisy in the political sphere.

The first is personal hypocrisy, when, as in the case with Eliot Spitzer in New York, ones personal behaviour doesn’t match up to the political ideals that you have been advocating. The second is political hypocrisy, when a politician draws a veil over the political realities of a policy in order to deceive the public.

We, the public, are obsessed with personal hypocrisy which blinds us to the political hypocrisy taking place all around us. We hold politicians to impossible standards, comforting ourselves with the thought that they chose to live their life in the public eye, and therefore they must be the best of us.

And yet I wonder, given that we are all hypocrites in one way or another, aren’t these politicians that we castigate just demonstrating that which we say we want – humanity. There is nothing more human than the desire to hide your worst self, and surely that is even clearer in the mind of a politician.

We need to realise that if a politician has made mistakes in their life, or changed their view on a political position, that may well make them better people, and better able to make good policies in the future. It is not a character flaw to change your mind.

What is different and objectionable is when people judge others. That’s ultimately why the Conservative’s ‘Back to Basics’ policy failed. It sounded as though they were judging the public, and so when their personal peccadilloes came to light it was so profoundly damaging.

The public is easily swayed by the rhetoric of hypocrisy precisely because the public has lost trust in politics and to a certain extent in themselves. Although the argument still rages, again see the Daniel Finkelstein piece from this week, we can at least say that rising affluence is not resulting in rising levels of contentment and fulfilment. People are apparently less happy today, less content despite being more materially affluent than any time in history. The perception gap that I have referred to so many times is part of the public hypocrisy – enough is never enough.

Arguably, democratic politics contains at its very heart a meta-hypocrisy. On the one hand politicians pretend that it’s about doing what people want, when in fact representative democracy is little more than the process by which we can get rid of bad governments.

On the other hand politicians claim the public complains too loudly about their every decision; as if, somehow, our politicians would attain a state, where their behaviour would delight us.

We the people are constitutionally dissatisfied. These two myths, that of democratic accountability and of political venality are the two expressions of the position we find ourselves in – we are a people unwilling to be governed and yet not ready to govern ourselves.

This is a much more profound ‘hypocrisy’ than politicians who call for virtue but are sometimes guilty of vice.

I completely agree with Runciman’s recognition that hypocrisy is a particularly English, or at least English-speaking phenomena. I was reminded of the fact that not all countries have this puerile obsession with politicians bedrooms by the famous Mitteraund response to the Parkinson and Hawke affair when he said “Imagine having to resign because of adultery. If we did that in France, there would only be the poofs left in the cabinet!”

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