This afternoon I attended a terrific seminar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics led by Amber Diaz, a PhD student in political science at Duke. Amber was presenting some preliminary results from a large survey she has conducted on Americans’ reactions to learning that their political leaders sometimes mislead them. According to the Kenan Institute’s web site, her dissertation is tentatively entitled: “Bumbling, Bluffing, and Bald-Faced Lies: Mis-Leading and Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations.”
It shouldn’t surprise readers of this blog that during the discussion of many different kinds and contexts of deception in politics, it seems to make a difference whether we interpret the deceptive politician as being engaged in an essentially competitive or a non-competitive activity.
In competitive “games” — especially those involving strategic rationality, where one party is taking into account how the other is trying to outwit her — we routinely leave room for “ethical deception,” or at least ethically excusable deception. Poker players can bluff, quarterbacks can pump-fake, pitchers can throw change-ups, negotiators can deliver a phony ultimatum, detectives interrogating suspects can trick them into believing they already have DNA evidence proving their guilt; and so on.
What about political leaders? Do we demand that they always tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? We might be inclined to answer, “Yes, of course!” And when we say this it is because we are thinking about them as our public servants, with a fiduciary duty to look after our interests rather than their own. One of these interests is in knowing the truth, and not being manipulated or disrespected. We hate the idea that a political leader would lie to us because he knows full well we would not go along with his scheme. We hate it even more if he lies to us in pursuit of some personal or partisan interest.
Amber Diaz’s research aims to see just how righteously indignant we really are when we realize we’ve been duped. Is this something that we make politicians pay a price for? (Amber is more than welcome to post on this blog if she wants to tell us more about the answers her research and number-crunching are turning up!)
But the fact is, we are not always upset about politicians being deceptive, and not just in cases where we might want to say “I know he’s a sonuvabitch, but he’s our sonuvabitch!” Sometimes we recognize that politicians are engaged in deliberately adversarial contests; and we respect them for being wily in some of these situations.
This is most obviously the case in the conduct of foreign affairs (a realm Amber is looking at, in fact). Here we see our leaders as engaged, at least partly, in an adversarial contest against our national rivals or enemies. We expect them to deceive these rivals sometimes (e.g., to send spies and special ops into other countries), and this may well require that they deceive us too. Similarly, we might expect political leaders involved in sensitive international negotiations (e.g. for trade, or arms-reduction, treaties) to bluff and make hollow threats.
But we may even excuse deception within domestic politics precisely because we take seriously the constitutionally adversarial nature of democracy. Political leaders are not merely public servants with paternalistic duties to look after our interests. We have deliberately locked them into adversarial contests with rival politicians, and with rival sources of power in our society. We might want to tie one hand behind their backs in these contests. But if we understand the nature of our adversarial system, we cannot tie both hands. For this reason, as my colleague Kieran Healy pointed out in today’s seminar, we often gain a grudging respect for “successful” politicians who know how to win at the game we place them in — even when they are not “our sonuvabitch.”
In any case, if we are a bit confused or inconsistent in our evaluations or, or reactions to, political leaders lying — and this is what Amber’s preliminary data seem to be showing — it is at least in part because we are confused and inconsistent about how partisan or non-partisan we expect the game of politics to be.