Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sincere politicians?

It really is unfortunate that we already have presidential hopefuls campaigning for the next election. Presidential campaigns can be interesting at times, and can spark useful debates, but the personality obsessions that usually accompany them are both tiresome and pointless. Instead of discussing real political policies and how to implement them we are treated to the real or perceived impressions of reporters, pundits, and friends (and now bloggers) of the character of the president. As if any of them are in a position to opine on such a topic.

One of the most pernicious characteristics of this species of discourse is the attempt to determine the sincerity of a candidate's statements. Reporters, and bloggers often dig up old statements from prior campaigns and speeches where he argued (or perhaps even voted) for the opposite of what he is now saying. Now, as a matter of pure politics I can see the usefulness of highlighting insincerity. We prefer the candidate we support to be completely sincere in her statements--generally because we support her for those statements and we do sincerely believe them.

But should we? There are serious problems with worrying about the sincerity of politicians. First, and most obviously, is the epistemological. How do we tell when a politician is being sincere? After all, since sincerity is a selling point most candidates will try to present themselves as really believing what they say. And it turns out that the best (or at least easiest) way to do this is to act as if you really do believe it. Thus, it doesn't really matter whether you really think Roe v. Wade should be overturned if you still work to overturn it. And any Republican president who runs as a social conservative will try to appoint only judges that are consistent with this claim, regardless of what he actually believes.

Well, what about those cases where a president says he believes in something, but then does nothing about it? Isn't that a sign that he wasn't sincere in his statements? If someone is truly against, say, criminalizing drug use, won't she do much more than the insincere politician? This might be true, but I would have to see evidence before I will be convinced. There are many reasons why politicians don't vote or support or work for things they claim to believe in. Only one of them might be because they are lying (and as I said above it is not clear that lying about this is even a very common reason for this lack of support). It seems more common might be the exact same reasons why those politicians who do support it are also unable to do anything. Consider gay marriage. Does it really matter what actual beliefs a Republican has? Almost all Republicans politicians are forced to disavow support for gay equality. Similarly with Democrats--they can say they are against gay marriage, but they have to come out in favor of civil unions. Does it matter what they actually believe? Won't their behavior be the same?

Finally, it is not even clear to me why we should want a politician that really does believe everything she says. After all, the candidates we support are campaigning for our votes on the basis that he will represent us, what we would prefer, in Washington. In a functioning democracy the elected leaders will be responsive to the desires of the people they claim to represent. Thus, even if he doesn't believe in something he can still sincerely work for it if he feel it is what is wanted by those he is working for. I would be more interested in a candidate's ability to do this, to act as a true public servant rather than a sincere ruler.

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