Hypocrisy is such a ubiquitous feature of democratic politics that it can be hard to take it seriously. Indeed, taking it seriously is sometimes held to be a sign of political immaturity, or worse still, just more hypocrisy. We know that politicians can't possibly sustain all the absurd contortions we demand of them as the price for securing our votes. In such circumstances, to insist that democratic politicians should honour all their promises, and practise what they preach, is itself absurd, and likely to breed cynicism and contempt. In an essay entitled 'Hypocrisy and Democracy' in his wonderfully measured new collection, Dennis Thompson quotes Judith Shklar, who described the politics of anti-hypocrisy as an 'unending game of mutual unmasking', in which everyone is bound to lose. Because democracy is a system of government that institutionalises distrust, as the price we pay for handing over so much power to our representatives, it is all the more important that we shouldn't destroy what little trust remains, by imposing impossibly high standards. 'We should learn to tolerate some inconsistency between the promises and performances of politicians,' Thompson writes, 'and perhaps even more between their private and public lives.' If we don't, politics will end up in the hands of the cynics and the prigs.
LRB 21 April 2005 | PDF Download