It is impossible for an effective political leader to tell the truth all the time. Complete honesty is not a useful virtue for a politician.
Is complete honesty a useful virtue in politics? The speaker contends that it is not, for the reason that political leaders must sometimes lie to be effective. In order to evaluate this contention it is necessary to examine the nature of politics, and to distinguish between short-term and long-term effectiveness.
On the one hand are three compelling arguments that a political leader must sometimes be less than truthful in order to be effective in that leadership. The first argument lies in the fact that politics is a game played among politicians--and that to succeed in the game one must use the tools that are part-and-parcel of it. Complete forthrightness is a sign of vulnerability and naivete, neither of which will earn a politician respect among his or her opponents, and which those opponents will use to every advantage against the honest politician. Secondly, it is crucial to distinguish between misrepresentations of fact in other words, lies--and mere political rhetoric. The rhetoric of a successful politician eschews rigorous factual inquiry and indisputable fact while appealing to emotions, ideals, and subjective interpretation and characterizations. Consider, for example, a hypothetical candidate for political office who attacks the incumbent opponent by pointing out only certain portions of that opponent's legislative voting record. The candidate might use a vote against a bill eliminating certain incentives for local businesses as "dear evidence" that the opponent is "anti-business," "bad for the economy," or "out of touch with what voters want." None of these allegations are outright lies; they are simply the rhetorical cant of the effective politician.
Thirdly, politics is a business born not only of idealism but also of pragmatism; after all, in order to be effective a politician must gain and hold onto political power, which means winning elections. In my observation some degree of pandering to the electorate and to those who might lend financial support in reelection efforts is necessary to maintain that position. Modern politics is replete with candidates who refused to pander, thereby mining their own chance to exercise effective leadership.
Although in the short term being less-than-truthful with the public might serve a political leader's interest in preserving power, would-be political leaders who lack requisite integrity ultimately forfeit their leadership. Consider Richard Nixon, whose leadership seemed born not of ideology but of personal ambition, which bred contempt of the very people who sanctioned his leadership in the first place; the ultimate result was his forfeiture of that leadership. In contrast, Ronald Reagan was a highly effective leader largely because he honestly, and deeply,believed in the core principles that he espoused and advocated during his presidency--and his constituency sensed that genuineness and responded favorably to it. Moreover, certain types of sociopolitical leadership inherently require the utmost integrity and honesty. Consider notable figures such as Gandhi and King, both of whom were eminently effective in leading others to practice the high ethical and moral standards which they themselves advocated. The reason for this is simple: A high standard for one's own personal integrity is a prerequisite for effective moral leadership.
To sum up, I concede that the game of politics calls for a certain measure of posturing and disingenuousness. Yet, at the end of the game, without a countervailing measure of integrity, political game-playing will serve to diminish a political leader's effectiveness perhaps to the point where the politician forfeits the game.
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