How the voters love a hypocrite

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The Independent Online
DEMOCRACY cannot exist without hypocrisy. But hypocrisy can and does exist without democracy. Hypocrisy is part of human nature. It has flourished in every age and under every form of political and religious organisation. Democracy, by comparison, is a recent and exceptional phenomenon. It has come about in the course of the last two centuries, in no more than a score of countries. Its spread to all others was being confidently predicted in 1989-90 but looks much less likely now.

To say that democracy is shot through with hypocrisy is no more than to acknowledge something that democracy has in common with all other forms of society, past and present. What is more interesting, and what I propose to examine, is how hypocrisy works in democracies, as compared with the way it works in other forms of society.

These thoughts are prompted by a symposium I have been attending in Israel on the subject of 'Democracy and Diversity'. Most of the participants are favourable to democracy (and rather more optimistic than I am about its capacity to adapt to diversity). But two speakers, though not overtly anti-democratic, were inclined to disparage the achievements and general character of democracy. These were the only speakers who linked democracy to hypocrisy, as part of their case against the former. This association led me to reflect more seriously than I had ever done on how hypocrisy works within a democracy, as compared with how it works in any of the various forms of authoritarian and totalitarian society.

Let us look first at how hypocrisy works in the latter forms of society, which I shall call despotisms for the sake of brevity. The despot is hypocritical in general terms, in the sense that he affects to be working exclusively and selflessly for the good of his people. In reality, of course, even the most virtuous despot is affected also by other motives, including the love of power and of celebrity and adulation. In this respect, despots are not so very different from democratic rulers. Both express exclusively the highest motives, both are also affected by lower motives, and the lower motives are the same in both cases.

At the level of rulers, whether democratic or despotic, hypocrisy is a universal constant. It is at the level of the ruled that the difference between despotism and democracy is dramatic.

Under a despotism, only one form of hypocrisy is allowed, and that one is compulsory. It consists, of course, of adulation of the despot. Those who want access to a degree of power, nominally as tools of the despot, but in fact for their own gratification and satisfaction, compete in flattery to such an extent that they seem to be raving. In Ghana one afternoon there was a small earthquake. That morning the local despot, Kwame Nkrumah, had given a speech. For the flatterers, the speech was the cause of the earthquake. The Ghana Evening News the following day devoted its front page to the congenial theme:

'O ye of little faith

'Have ye not seen, have ye not heard?


In democracies, hypocrisy is a much more complicated business because those who have to be propitiated are far more numerous and they have to be propitiated in different ways. There are therefore many different and competing forms of hypocrisy on offer. Localities, regions, interest groups and ethnic groups, rather than the government, are the objects of flattery. And politicians in a democracy dish out a lot more flattery than they receive.

A feature of American presidential elections is the ritual consumption by candidates of every form of ethnic food that exists in the United States. As few Americans really have a taste for anyone else's ethnic food - let alone a melange of the whole lot - this ritual is hypocritical. It is also, at a deeper level, humiliating.

Most Americans, in private, look down on ethnic groups to which they do not happen to belong and the food of those groups is a particular subject of derision. So the presidential candidate, in publicly consuming ethnic food in all its varieties, is abasing himself before each more or less despised ethnic community in turn. He does so in order that they may empower him to represent them. And that is exactly how it should be. That is what holds the United States together, against all the apparent ethnic, religious and racial odds. And if the greatest democracy in the world were to collapse, in some cosmic fit of honesty, none of the other democracies would survive for long. So long live hypocrisy - as the glue of democracy, but not otherwise.

So also with the dimension of the politically correct. It is salutary that a baseball commissioner can be fired, as has happened, for a remark unconsciously bordering on the racist. The fact that millions of people daily and privately make such remarks is irrelevant. What is important is the constraint it imposes on public discourse; that ethnic and racial negative discrimination should not be publicly sanctioned; that society should partake in a humane fiction.

But lies, which can be salutary in the political domain, are a sign of an inherent dysfunction and indeed toxic in the world of academia. For this reason the politically correct must be resisted there. In the wider sphere, the contemplation of how hypocrisy works in democracies brings out the richness, the oddity and the relative kindness of democracy as compared with other forms of organised society.

(Photograph omitted)