Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity – dare I say right – to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.
Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.
The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.
It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.
It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.
The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.” If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:
That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?
…. Or what we deserve?
If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.
Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive – for the sake of the public good – may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.
Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait – before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.
In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:
Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?
The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*
You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.
At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.
* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.
* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.
* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.
Harry G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15
Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c
Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.