Are Politicians Liars? Taking a Step Back from Brexit

Among the most striking features of the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been the speed with which the victorious politicians promoting Brexit have rowed back from their more extravagant promises about the extra funds and fewer migrants which would follow from leaving the European Union. For their part, anti-Brexit politicians have been busily mounting legal challenges to show that the referendum is not binding, or at least not the last word on the topic. And indeed, legally speaking, the anti-Brexit politicians may be correct. But had they – specifically, UK Prime Minister David Cameron — presented matters this way at the outset, it is unlikely that the referendum would have received the highest turnout of any election in British history.

In effect, one bunch of politicians promised the electorate the moon after the other bunch of politicians had persuaded them that the moon was at stake. Little surprise, then, yet another wave of the familiar ‘All politicians are liars’ sentiment has been unleashed. My lesson here is that when people ‘trust’ politicians in a parliamentary democracy, they should do just that – that is, trust the politicians not their words.

This judgement sounds harsh, maybe even cynical. But that’s only because people, as well as many politicians, don’t appreciate that democracy is the ultimate ‘work in progress’, especially if we think of it as involving ‘the masses’. Before the Enlightenment, the only stable democracies were ones whose members were rough cognitive and material equals – i.e. the city-states associated with ‘republican’ democracy, in which citizenship was an elite privilege. However, the Enlightenment took seriously that the scope of democracy could be extended across the population by sophisticated ideas of ‘representation’ allied to educational policies designed to trigger people’s innate capacities for self-representation. Thus, someone like Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university, envisaged a telos to democracy that started with Parliament’s paternalistic representation of its constituents and ended with a general assembly of well-educated equals, for whom ‘representation’ would amount to a direct administration of their collective will. The famous Marxist expression, ‘the withering away of the state’, originated in this context.

But exactly where are we on this trajectory?

Some would say that we are still very close to the start of the process because the trajectory itself is a product of wishful thinking: Democracy doesn’t scale. To be sure, much of Silicon Valley’s interest in politics is precisely about trying to fast forward to Humboldt’s end-state through one or another technological fix, something which the journalist Evgeny Morozov has derided as ‘solutionism’. Morozov may doubt the purity of Silicon Valley’s motives, but the deeper grounds for scepticism are epistemological: Can the mass of people ever be expected to be sufficiently ‘trained’ to arrive at a sense of self-interest which converges with the national interest, so as to enable collective deliberation to occur within a tolerable range, resulting in only win-win situations? If not, then maybe the second best solution is for the people to trust the judgement of politicians, who without being infallible or blameless nevertheless are – or at least are supposed to be – their epistemic and moral superiors. If not, then of course there is always the next election to replace them.

But once again, to trust politicians need not mean trusting their words – at least in terms of their providing a transparent representation of either the state of the nation or, for that matter, the state of their own mind. Does that make them liars? No, it simply means that politicians don’t trade in what philosophers used to call ‘ordinary language’. Just as scientists are allowed ‘technical usage’, and priests and theologians are allowed ‘symbolic usage’, politicians engage in proleptic usage. ‘Prolepsis’ is the trope deployed to conjure up the presence of events before they actually happen. In classical culture, it was invoked by prophets to express adumbration, ‘the shape of things to come’, as H.G. Wells memorably put it in the twentieth century. But politicians – as purveyors of hope and fear – are also in the same business. Thus, their words are always just proxies for what they’re really trying to say.

Once this point is appreciated, we can begin to understand Machiavelli’s infamous declaration that in politics ‘the ends justifies the means’. He was regarded as blasphemous in the early sixteenth century but not because he made politicians look cynical — today’s interpretation. Rather, it was because he would arrogate to humans – specifically ‘the prince’ — a perspective that only God could legitimately command. But what is this perspective which permits one to indulge in proleptic rhetoric?

Suppose we believe in an overarching creative deity whose transcendent status enables it to operate everywhere all the time. This may be a difficult starting point in today’s secular world, but it has made perfect sense to Christians down through the ages. In that case, the deity’s actions will often appear strange or even perverse in terms of human expectations, which admittedly are based on decidedly inferior knowledge. Integral to this cast of mind, which by the early eighteenth century Leibniz called ‘theodicy’, is the belief that such moments of strangeness are resolved in the fullness of time as we come to realize the greater divine ends that they serve. All modern secular utopias have retained features of this sense of what the US historian Carl Becker called ‘the heavenly city’ in the distance – often inspiring both significant sacrifices and significant disappointments.

Now suppose you can imagine yourself as a vehicle of divine agency in the above sense. Moreover, you don’t feel the need to secure the approval of the Pope or any other religious authority purported to have more direct access to the deity than you. In that case, you’re ready to enter politics! So then, what are you doing when you communicate with your constituents? Consider a concrete example.

Suppose you say that your policies will raise income levels. But income levels as such aren’t really the thing that matters. They are simply the means to express some larger sense of the quality of life. So, if your opponents or events beyond your control disable you from delivering on the relevant income levels, you admit this, apportion blame as necessary and carry on with your general vision by appropriating the next most expedient vehicle. Of course, it’s unfortunate if some people actually believed in your quite specific policies for raising incomes on which you failed to deliver. But if these people are politically savvy, they – like you – will be able to roll with the punches and subscribe to the next set of promises you offer, as long as they believe that you’re going in the right general direction.

In short, people – politicians and non-politicians alike – can cope with the world of politics if they can adequately trade off their short term against their long term interests. This requires a capacity to convert one’s immediate ends into means by which some further, and perhaps quite distant, ends might be pursued. Some might regard this move as ‘selling out’, if not a polite admission of outright failure. However, such behaviour simply reflects the long time horizon over which politics is played out. So not surprisingly, politicians will do all they can to keep their vision appear steady, even as they launch and abandon ships with alarming regularity.

Because science operates on a still longer time horizon than politics, we are more forgiving of the shifts in position that diligent scientists invariably make as they pursue the ‘truth’, which once revealed is often profoundly different from what had been initially expected. Perhaps we should extend the same charity to politicians.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory, Sociological Craft, Sociologists of Crisis

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