Necessary Hypocrisy

Here is an extended quotation from David Martin’s review of David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 2, 2009). Speaking of politicians, Martin writes,

“It is also the case that once you become used to the exigencies attending the exercise of power and responsibility, you take for granted the disjunction between what you recommend for others and what you claim for yourself, and that hypocrisy of this kind can lead to a precipitous fall from political grace. But this notorious moral hazard is not the same thing as the steady escalation of constraints on honesty, truthfulness and sincerity that follows from exercising power when that power is not absolute but dependent on an electorate that both recommends tough choices with a view to a better future and wants everything now. The necessary hypocrisy of politicians partly derives from the egregious hypocrisy of the People.”

This is another way of saying that we tend to get the leaders we deserve. Our attention is frequently directed to the moral failures and dissimulations of prominent politicians, both on the Right and on the Left. Rarely, however, is our attention ever drawn to the moral failure of the People. Perhaps this is because “the cardinal principle of politics,” as George Will has noted, runs as follows: “Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public.”

That self-governance necessitated virtue was once a commonplace of political wisdom. It seems that we have surrendered the responsibilities of self-governance to the same degree that we have abandoned the quest for public virtue. Exposing the corruption of our elected officials is better than not, but we may merely be rolling up the the Stone of Sisyphus until an equally searching light has been shined upon we the people.

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