Public Lying Mocks Democratic Process

David Blankenhorn, Newsday, 9/11/1998

Conversely, more than any other form of government, democracy requires truth telling. Why? Because the fundamental moral rationale for democracy is the belief that listening to each other, and reasoning together, can help us to discern a common reality, a broader and more accurate understanding of the way things are. Public lying – an issue raised in President Bill Clinton's current difficulties – makes a mockery of that democratic hope. By destroying trust in each other and trust that civic participation is an understandable and therefore rational activity, public lying undermines the foundations of self-governance. For this reason, the highest possible offense against democracy, other than direct treason, is public lying.

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Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

Totalitarian governments are largely sustained by public lying. Our greatest teacher on this topic is Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who is now president of the Czech Republic.

One of Havels basic insights was that communism could not survive without constant official mendacity and the public's passive cooperation with it. The power to overturn communism did not ultimately flow from power politics or the barrel of a gun, but instead from what Havel simply and brilliantly called "living in truth."

Conversely, more than any other form of government, democracy requires truth telling. Why? Because the fundamental moral rationale for democracy is the belief that listening to each other, and reasoning together, can help us to discern a common reality, a broader and more accurate understanding of the way things are. Public lying – an issue raised in President Bill Clinton's current difficulties – makes a mockery of that democratic hope.

By destroying trust in each other and trust that civic participation is an understandable and therefore rational activity, public lying undermines the foundations of self-governance. For this reason, the highest possible offense against democracy, other than direct treason, is public lying.

In some circumstances, lying is acceptable and even desirable. Most of these exceptions concern our private lives and involve matters of courtesy. For example, if I meet an old friend who has gained weight and is wearing an ugly dress, it is proper for me to say, untruthfully, "You look great." If I am confident that I am the smartest person in the room, and you ask me, "Who do you think is the smartest person in the room?" it is proper for me to be evasive or untruthful in my answer.

But a key moral justification for the "good" private lie is that the lie must be selfless, usually a way of modestly shifting praise or advantage or credit away from myself. The opposite kind of justification is almost never acceptable; virtually all self-interested lies are morally wrong.

More generally, from a democrat's perspective, private lying is merely harmful – a betrayal of those being lied to, possibly an indicator of a more general willingness to lie and certainly a bad example to set for children. But public lying in a democracy is lethal. It is lying to everybody at the same time, in a premeditated way, as a civic act, operating from one's authority as a democratic leader.

The worst form of public lying is lying under oath – when I formally swear to my fellow citizens and to God to tell the truth, no matter what. Under oath, there is no such thing as a good or private lie, even in the case of the fat friend in an ugly dress or as regards who is the smartest person in the room. Being "sworn in" is a democracy's highest and most solemn enshrinement of the norm of truth telling. To violate that oath is to attack the democratic idea. In Clinton's case, he and his defenders have developed a clear argument. Their proposition is that a president should not be removed from office for public lying repeatedly, including under oath, if the president believes that telling the truth would have exposed him to unfair political attack and unjustified invasions of privacy.

From this basic premise flow all the other supporting ideas. That everybody lies, especially politicians, especially about sex. (If everybody does it, it can't be so bad.) That some public lies are more acceptable than others. That whatever is legally non-actionable is "private" and thus beyond the reach of formal political punishment.

That technically true deceptions, statements clearly intended to deceive but containing well-hidden linguistic escape clauses that can be brought forward when and if the deception is uncovered constitute telling the truth. And, most of all, that politics trumps morality; that political success is ultimately more important than telling the truth.

To accept this proposition and these supporting ideas would be to accept the practicality of public lying in a democracy. I have three young children. From this sad episode, they will learn in the coming weeks either that public lying is acceptable in our society or that it is not.

This article originally appeared here.

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