Politicians: Disingenuousness and Hope

We would all like not to be cynical about politicians: so much so that we become blind to the fact that it is this naivety that makes politicians act cynically to begin with. This is perfectly illustrated in the recent case of Bush-Obama, which will likely become a fable in many years to come, of the kind of phenomenon I mean. The Bush administration has made people more cynical of politicians than they have been in a very long time—whether this is really it’s fault is another matter—and such is the weariness and doubt of the American people that the prevalent attitude seems to be, “any administration is better than the Bush administration”. Needless to say, this sort of feeling is easily capitalised on by any cunning politician. The extra-cunning politician, however, will think to himself, “how can I make myself even more appealing to my voters than the other cunning politicians?” The answer is simple: style yourself as the polar opposite of George Bush. And this is exactly what Obama has done—so far, very successfully.

Now of course, if a politician just happens to be naturally constituted in such a way that they actually are the polar opposite of the currently-hated politician, without need of styling, then there is very little they can do to protect themselves from the accusation that they are pretending. After all, the only way to truly prove their genuineness is for us to step inside their minds (unfortunately an impossible proposition, but one that might save a lot of time and money). However, it surely must have crossed the minds of at least some American voters that what Obama is offering is not that radical or new, and that it only seems to be so because it seems to stand in contrast to what the Bush administration stood for. Hope, equality, opportunity for all, change—these are all values that America was built on, and that therefore it would be absurd for any potential president not to stand for. What Obama has successfully done so far (and what he will most likely continue to successfully do until he becomes president) is give the persuasive illusion that he really does genuinely stand for these things. This is largely an aesthetic skill: it lies in his rhetoric of hope, so much more convincing as it is than any of his rivals’; it lies in his gait, his manner, his style, his confidence (as contrasted with the desperation of the ghastly Mrs. Clinton), and his image—inspiringly but somewhat cornily represented in The Audacity of Hope.

These are all perfectly fine qualities, and ones that will undoubtedly stay with him during his (nearly assured) tenure as president. But charm aside, we are still in the honeymoon period between Obama and the American people. Honeymooning necessitates a marriage, and marriages in politics more so than in life come—at the very least—with disagreements. In life, marriages end either in divorce or in death; in politics, the end is invariably divorce. The question is, then, what possible reason could there be for America to divorce such a charming man?

The answer must lie somewhere in the inevitability of the political machine, a machine which, as it turns so relentlessly and indifferently, catches all politicians in its spindles and gears. We surely cannot be so cynical as to suppose that most politicians enter into their chosen careers solely for the money, for there are many more lucrative paths for them to take. I suspect that most do genuinely hope to improve the world, and it is just that some succumb to simple pragmatics in the hopes of acquiring the power that will ultimately allow them to enact their good intentions. “Simple pragmatics”, however, is just the alluring face of the machine that, after tempting the unwitting politician, ensnares him, and never lets him out until he sees the necessity of lying, and then becomes desensitised to it. By this I don’t mean gargantuan and stupid lies (here I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton’s under-fire-in-Bosnia incident), but merely small and pragmatic ones. And as we all know of lies, they have a tendency to snowball until, at the very best, your sheen of respectability is lost, and at worst, you are essentially forced out of office (here I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton’s husband). The point is this: it appears to be an innate fact of the system that lies are inevitable, and impossible to avoid. Nothing here is innate in the politician, but in the environment he finds himself in, and in the specific kind of pressure put upon him. Consider how all political underlings (by this I mean all those who are not the presidents or prime ministers of this world) must, almost of necessity, side with the views of their party leaders. Whenever they disagree passionately with their leaders, as was the case with Robin Cook and Tony Blair on Iraq, they feel impelled to announce their resignations. Often, they are much admired for their supposed bravery, but is it not really cowardice? To leave politics, the arena in which you hoped to change the world for the better, over a disagreement, however large? I pose the question not rhetorically, but because I do not know the answer. The opposite is much more common of course, and is certainly cowardly—pragmatic, but cowardly. I cannot count the amount of times I have seen Labour politicians squirming their ways out of uncomfortable interview positions when confronted with the question of Iraq. Conservatives, of course, lie just as often, but because they are the opposition party, and not directly culpable for the war, theirs are comfortable and confident lies, just as disingenuous, and in fact condemning the government for their obvious disingenuousness—for the most part, just because it is obvious. So the politicians on the attack lie because it is easy to, and those on the defence lie because they have to.

I do not mean to suggest that Barack Obama has anything but the best intentions, though I am sure the same can be said of John McCain. I merely posit that Obama has set himself an extremely difficult task with his emphasis on “change we can believe in”. Apart from the phrase seeming to smack of the populist, really the only change he means is that of undoing what everyone accuses Bush of having done, and “undoing” is not the same as “change”. Regarding the Iraq war, Obama proposes removing American troops, ignoring completely the fact that this is likely to worsen the situation there. Regarding climate change and American dependence on oil, Obama proposes investing in new energy sources; this is appealing insofar as it is the opposite of the current administration’s policy, but at the same time so obvious that a child could have thought of it. What if these ambitious plans, along with many others, fail? Why then Obama will find himself firmly in the spindles and gears of the machine—the very machine that he proposes to change. One can only hope that he doesn’t fail, however; but it is exactly this hope, rather than objective analysis, that is likely to win him the presidency.


2 responses to “Politicians: Disingenuousness and Hope

  1. “The answer must lie somewhere in the inevitability of the political machine…it appears to be an innate fact of the system that lies are inevitable, and impossible to avoid.”

    “…but is it not really cowardice? To leave politics, the arena in which you hoped to change the world for the better, over a disagreement, however large? …The opposite is much more common of course, and is certainly cowardly—pragmatic, but cowardly.”

    Two very good observations. But they raise a question that you have not addressed in this post. Is it necessary for the political environment to be a breeding ground for disingenuousness?
    I hold that it is not necessary. It is so today only because politics has overstepped its limits, and government has intervened in matters that are none of its business. There is no right way for a government to do what it should not have been doing in the first place (actions such as spreading democracy in the world or making education or health care or home ownership affordable). The role of the government is solely to protect the rights of individuals to act on their own judgement. When the government does more, it necessarily violates some individuals’ rights and has to start lying to justify the violations.

  2. What you say about politics overstepping its limits may be true, but I very much doubt that there was any period in history in which it didn’t do just that. If so, they could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    I agree with you that it’s not necessary for politics to be a breeding ground for disingenuousness. However, I do think that politics, by its nature, is much more likely to make people resort to it. Take a hypothetical instance of a perfectly decent up and coming politician, who is sincere in all his intentions. First comes the practicality of merely achieving power. Unless he is lucky enough to have the right connections, he must either (a) work extremely hard, or (b) work pretty hard, but tell a few small lies along the way. By “lie” here I mean the occasional flip-flopping regarding positions on various issues, to appease the more important party members.

    Secondly, once he is in power, he must attempt the equally difficult task of living up to expectations. Usually when a perfectly sincere politician makes promises, they are sincere, optimistic, and not based in reality at all. Obama intends to invest heavily in finding new energy sources if he wins the presidency. But on what real evidence can he make a realistic timetable for such a plan? Imagine he becomes president for 2 terms. 7 years down the line, if he still hasn’t changed America’s reliance on foreign oil, he will be widely criticised, and forced, probably, to resort to desperate measures to distract the populace.

    So I agree that disingenuousness is not necessary, but I also think it may be difficult to avoid once the everyday realities set in.

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