A question has been rattling around in my mind: What would have to change to have politicians speak to us honestly and plainly about what they really think and why they're doing what they're doing? The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the question is not so much about the defects in our politicians as about the defects in us, the American people.
This question about honest politics is certainly timely. The memory of Campaign '96 is fresh in our minds, with images of "Mediscare," of "15 percent across-the-board tax cuts," of people who live in glass houses throwing stones at the veracity of their opponents. The problem, of course, is perennial, going back to the beginnings of the Republic and up through the fictional "missile gaps" and "secret plans to end the war" and pledges to balance the budget and invitations to read our leaders' lips.
If your appetite is for straight talk, the words of politicians make an unsatisfactory meal. As a news junkie, I videotape news programs each day for my late-evening perusal. It has taken me years, but I've learned to fast-forward through interviews with elected politicians. From the postures they assume, as phony and calculated as they are uninformative, I don't learn much. It reminds me of the definition of an ambassador as an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country. I fast-forward through ambassadors, too. Give me those straight-forward experts and analysts who see their job as simply to provide illumination and insight.
I once thought the problem was that politicians were mental mediocrities, lacking the intelligence of a good academic. I have since read enough memoirs to know politicians can be quite perceptive. But in the arena of public political combat, telling the truth is not the name of the game.
I've also toyed with the idea that the problem is with the news media and the pervasive cynicism that accompanies reporting on politics. Everything is reduced to "spin." The question is not what's true and right so much as what this posturing means in terms of tactics in the ongoing struggle for political advantage. "He's shoring up his base." "He's trying to seize the political center." "He's using this as a wedge issue." The discourse by which our nation defines itself and shapes its future is reduced to the moral equivalent of football.
Sure, the cynicism of the press is a problem, but I think it is also in part a blessing. It is a problem because, if a politician spoke to us from the heart, the news media would distort it into something else. It's the sincerity ploy, they'd tell us. However, it seems to me the cynicism of the media is not the root of the problem, but is rather the fruit of a political culture of manipulation and con jobs. And so long as that is what our politicians practice, the news media's cynicism holds an open space for our sanity.
So what is the problem? Talk radio makes it clear who Americans blame: the craven politicians. They are all liars, the callers say. The people's distaste for, and blaming of, our political leaders has been thick and palpable for years. I think that's a cop-out. The defects of our politicians are a mirror of our own shortcomings.
No, I am not just saying politicians are human, like us, and it is unrealistic to expect them to be better than we are. It is not that they are "representative" of the population from which they grow; it is that they are experts in being what the voters will reward. The fault, dear fellow voters, lies not in our leaders but in ourselves.
Think of the politician as a player in a game that is scored in terms of votes. Winning election, and then reelection, is what the game is about. This may seem obvious, but it has important implications. There's no point in asking why they can't rise above the game: Those who rise above it get removed by the voters from the game.
So the question really is: What would have to change for American voters to reward politicians for honest, instead of manipulative, speech? Although I haven't come up with an answer to that question, I do have a way into the inquiry to propose. Let's look at some of the typical lies our politicians tell us:
*"I'm going to give you what you want, and nothing will be asked of you." Our taxes are always going to be cut, our favorite programs always protected. Sacrifice is not in the vocabulary of today's politician. So, how would we have to change for us to welcome a politician's telling us we can't have everything? (Do they have to retire from politics and then speak to us from the Concord Coalition?)
*"You, the American people, are exemplary, the epitome of virtue and wisdom. Whatever goes wrong is not your fault." In olden times, the sovereign was king, and he was surrounded by sycophants who stroked him with unceasing flattery. Now the people are sovereign, and we get flattered by our elected officials. They promise us a "government as good as the American people" in their campaign speeches. "The American people" is a phrase equivalent to "the voice of God." What would have to change for us to be willing to reward politicians who speak honestly of our faults - our selfishness and shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness - as well as of our virtues, who would not only tell us how great we are but also challenge us to be better?
*"All the scenarios I can imagine are rosy. All the problems we face are soluble, and I have the solutions." Optimism and boundless self-confidence seem to be prerequisites for success in the American political system. It is not only that the candidate must be absolutely certain of his own victory right up until his concession speech. On the nation's business, too, he must continually assure us that everything will work out just fine, if he's given the power.
Our nation's leaders are never bewildered or uncertain. "I don't know" isn't what we want to hear. We prefer Bob Dole's "I know the way." What would it take for the American people to reward less of this kind of phony confidence and more of the Socratic wisdom that knows it does not know?
Whatever else these changes would require, if we want honest politicians we need to develop a deeper honesty with ourselves, a more mature capacity to face the moral defects in our own desires. To be able to reward honesty, we'll need a greater courage in confronting the realities of our condition, our ignorance and uncertainty, and the concerns these raise.
A great deal is at stake. Unless we're able to face the real nature of the challenges and choices we face as a nation, we won't be able to work together to shape our destiny.
*Andrew Bard Schmookler lives in Virginia and is author of "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution."