chapter  6
Democracy and untruth (2012)
Pages 20

A common belief is that one main reason for the superiority of representative democracy to all other political systems is that it works by procedures that compel officials to be held accountable. They must take responsibility for their conduct in office, and submit to the judgment of the electorate on the basis of their record. Ideally, they would fail of re-election not only because they have pursued bad policies but also because they have not pursued the policies that they pledged to pursue if elected. Accountability is thus made up of two questions that are rightly asked of elected officials. Always the first question is: what have you done? It can be asked everyday as well as on election day, the day of judgment. But there is also a second question, both for election day and every day, and barely less important than the first one: have you done what you said you would do or try to do? Both these questions deal with the past and present. There is a third question for election day, which pertains to the future conduct of those who want to hold on to their offices or who want to win offices for the first time: what do you plan to do or try to do? Obviously this picture is simple to the point of being almost useless. The

actuality doesn’t sustain the aspiration: the ideal of democratic accountability appears to endure such a hard fate that it is to an appreciable extent fictitious. Democracy, with the greatest freedom to speak and the greatest amount of public speech, seems to operate by means of untruth much more than any other contemporary political system. By untruth I mean not just outright lying by misdescription or denial, but also such devices and practices as secrets or the withholding of knowledge, propaganda, exaggeration and other kinds of distortion, simplification, and construction of plausible stories and solemn narratives. If accountability is to exist, citizens must want it, and people holding office

or seeking election to office must provide it. If people want it intensely enough, democratic citizens would press the political stratum to provide it in order to avoid being punished by electoral defeat. The essential form of accountability is transparency. That is, citizens must want, and officials and would-be officials must provide, intelligible descriptive statements that are also honest or sincere. Sincere, intelligible statements must describe what officials in power have done and why, or must explain what they intend to do and why; and similarly,

those who seek office must intelligibly and sincerely say what they would do, if elected. Naturally, changing circumstances can throw any intended policy off course.

Public policies are at the mercy of unexpected events at home and abroad: statements of intention and purpose cannot be iron-clad contracts or promises. But when events deflect officials from their stated purposes, these officials must be transparent in explaining why they did not or cannot do what they said they intended to do. On the other hand, citizens must care about being dealt with honestly, and allowing for the play of circumstances, hold officials to their word. When accountability is haphazard or arbitrary, it would then seem that representative democracy could well be replaced by any political system that got desirable results, at least in the short term. The initial judgment is thus that citizens must want and expect transparency, and find its lack unacceptable, if the political stratum is to feel urgency in providing it to the fullest extent possible. Of course many of us as citizens are not conscientious and attentive. We

make an undesirable situation much worse in many areas of policy where technical knowledge is not demanded of the citizen and where greater transparency than actually exists is possible. My main interest is in the area of foreign policy, where the failure to insist on transparency intensifies the inveterate disposition of those who make foreign policy not to provide it. And because the results of foreign policy, though always of significance to American citizens, are only episodically or selectively or intermittently visible and palpable, the people remain fairly inattentive. We will return to foreign policy as the most important field for discussion

of the lack of transparency in democracy. But I would now like to turn in a general way to the deficiencies of democratic citizens. Untruth plays a large role in American politics, so large a role that we

could be led to contemplate the possibility that our democracy is intrinsically tenuous. But the plain fact is that untruth plays a large role in American democratic culture, in American life altogether. We the people bear a good deal of the responsibility for that condition. Some main institutions in American life proceed on the assumption that the mental level of the American people is low and that their moral level is perhaps not higher. I have in mind politics and advertising, especially. Much of the time, power-holders in these institutions can and do assume that people don’t want very much transparency as long as things go tolerably well. In democratic politics and culture much of the blame for the ubiquity of untruth must fall on the people. How else could advertising with its deception, inaccuracy, and exaggeration prosper? How else could the political stratum get away with its lies, distortions, withholdings, secrets, ingrained partisan bias, and ideological misrepresentations, and even flourish because of them? Partisanship is a particularly virulent source of disregard for truth in politics.

To be sure, partisanship supplies ideological emphasis, and emphasis is often needed to get important events and conditions to be noticed with an appropriate

seriousness. But when emphasis turns into inflamed exaggeration and then into outright mendacity that is repeated tenaciously as if it were a helpless obsession, partisanship soils public discourse indelibly. An adversarial partisanship might right the balance politically, but two gross falsehoods do not add up to a truth, and a mid-way compromise between them may be no better than a half-truth. Must we say, then, that there is a greater prevalence of untruth in modern

mass democracy than in all other political systems, except for twentieth-century totalitarian rule? Where the people are the ultimate judges because of mass enfranchisement and where there are numerous mass media that cater to the people by pitching their wares at the most profitable level – that is, a low average level – politics and the whole ambient culture will be bathed in untruth. After a certain point, the larger the audience is, the coarser or simpler the discourse must be. If politics is confined to the elite or at most a few segments of the population, and where discussion is therefore pitched at a much higher level and to a much smaller audience, and where the ambient culture is dominated by the standards of the comparative few, then perhaps untruth in all its forms would be much less necessary and consequently more candor would be in circulation in political life and elsewhere. Fewer outside the elite would be able to notice the candor; and if they somehow managed to have access to it, it would not register, or if it registered, would not be likely to spread; it would look too unfamiliar. The truth would be unblushing in an oligarchic political system with restricted media of communication, but there would be much to hide, whenever there is a need to hide it. Exclusion of most of the population from political life reduces the need until some patent crisis occurs, and then the unscrupulousness of the elite is strained to the limit to improvise explanations that do not make things worse. Once a larger public engages in even minimal discussion, untruth must change its forms; secrecy no longer suffices; unembarrassed lies and distortions must be risked. The irony is great and was theoretically noticed before by the early Frankfurt

school. The means of enlightenment in an open society, which is also a mass democratic society, are abundantly available. Someone or other will speak or write practically every truth that is relevant to discussion of public policy, the stuff of political life. Of course not every secret will be disclosed but nearly all the truth can be found in some medium or other; but you have to look tirelessly; even so, those who are committed to the truth may on occasion innocently offer untruth. At the same time, however, the means of false enlightenment or semi-enlightenment are far more abundant because the popular demand for them is far in excess of the demand for enlightenment. Truth is often not nearly as attractive as untruth, which has unlimited seductive power. To be sure, freedom of speech and press is a standing encouragement to expression on all matters of life, including public affairs. The sheer abundance of expression is staggering. How could one wish it otherwise? Nonetheless, the fact remains that the volume of untruth crowds out truth and makes the truth about the facts – I don’t refer to diverse opinions about the facts – just one

more strand in public discourse. The influence of truth is small in proportion to the need for it. People need it but often don’t want it. The people appear to get the elites they deserve or need or want. The

harms and injuries inflicted by the elites on the people are the responsibility, to a considerable extent, of the people themselves. Untruth serves various interests and passions of the elites, whether in office or in society – the powerful and advantaged classes, in short. Where power is un-transparent, accountability is a sham. The real motives of policy-makers are obscured, and often what the policy-makers have actually done or failed to do or intend to do is unclear or secret. When policies are difficult to identify or discuss, attribution of responsibility is hard if not impossible to determine; it becomes diffuse or murky. An incurious or unvigilant people are not served; they are even sacrificed. But the situation would be better if people wanted the truth more than they seem to, and tried harder to understand it when it is actually provided. In a democracy, popular deficiencies of attention and understanding set systematic untruth in motion. Since democratic control is often crude or belated or non-existent, it does

not serve to transform psychologically the power-holders and power-seekers and thus create a stratum radically different from power-holders and power-seekers in oligarchic and other non-democratic forms of government. Let us posit the fairly constant disposition in all those who are attracted to political power, that whatever the form of government, they desire as much discretionary power as possible. I do not say that they are normally driven by the will to tyrannize, or that they have no regard for ends other than acquiring and maintaining their power and feeling the pleasure that comes from making things happen and giving orders to people who are subordinate to them; or that they must love to the point of compulsion such accompaniments of power as prestige or glory. The point is that those in any political stratum are not usually dominated by the intellectual appetite to understand their own motives or to understand what it means for others to suffer the consequences of their deeds. They are not committed to truth and find the appetite for untruth in citizens gratifying. They love having secrets. Is that their greatest delight, more than lying or distorting? The long and short of it is that the solution to the problem of transparency

and hence accountability is not found in either more democracy or less, more popular power or less. If you want more democracy or less or none, you would have to use some standard other than the principle of accountability. If we were better citizens, our political stratum would be better, more true to the spirit of constitutional democracy. But bad citizens with democratic rights are better than subjects. Left to themselves to rule completely as they please, autocratic rulers or mostly closed elites would be likely to do worse things than democratic officials, who are slackly controlled or controlled for irrational or unjust purposes – certainly in many important areas of public policy. I characterize the situation we have as a grim and fundamentally un-improvable mixture: a combination of democracy and oligarchy and of democracy and non-democratic features inherent in any system of government and therefore shared by all of

them. But even this general description is not adequately pessimistic when we consider the making of foreign policy.