Political discourse in the age of always on recording devices: the death of statesmanship?

Congressman Poe and Governor Mitt Romney

Congressman Poe and Governor Mitt Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mitt Romney’s speech with the comment about the 47% was disclosed to the media, it changed the campaign.  The way the leak occurred revealed the perils of political speech in the age of always on recording devices.[1]  Political discourse will have to adapt to the technological constraints, but one thing is certain.  Until political discourse can adapt, statesmanship is dead. By that, I mean, the always on record devices destroy the way that a statesman weaves together, through word and deed, different groups to create the common good.  If the statesman cannot speak differently to different audience and mean the same thing by adjusting their speech, as required, to their audience they cannot succeed.

The statesman relies on persuasion to build the common good

The always on recording devices limit the statesman’s ability to make alliances using public, or private, persuasion to achieve his aims.  As Wendell Coats describes in his excellent book, statesmanship relies on persuasion. The statesman uses his knowledge of politics and persuasion to build alliances and support based on the issues and what motivates the audience. When the always on recording devices take away that flexibility, all persuasion, especially private, is seen as propaganda and political discourse is drained of meaning.  However, the problem is compounded by a related development where political rhetoric is confused with political philosophy.  We can see this with the “truther” movement.

The “truther” movement and political discourse

The technological constraints on statesmanship are only part of the problem. We need to be aware that the post-truth politics argument further erodes statesmanship and political discourse. The post truth argument is that politicians must always speak the truth where policy is completely linked to public opinion or public policy. David Roberts, often credited with coining the phrase, defines post-truth politics.

We live in post-truth politics: a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation). This obviously dims any hope of reasoned legislative compromise.

The idea which has mushroomed into the national journalist lexicon is only based on a speculative argument.  Roberts only asserts that politics has become disconnected from policy.  What still needs to be determined is whether politics and policy are separated and that we have entered a post truth era.  On the surface it fails to understand the role of ideas in politics and policies.  Policy is connected to politics because politics is the source of ideas in an iterative relationship in political debate.  The argument confuses party discipline with institutional intransigence by failing to consider the role of ideas needed to sustain the discipline.  However, let us return from dissecting its origins considering the way the post truth politics argument constrains and shapes political discourse.

The “post truth politics” idea allows “truthers” to speak with a tone of moral rectitude. Those using the phrase act as if they have the truth with which to hold to account politicians and party activists.  Post-truth politics is about politicians or party activists lying about their opponents or lying about their own policies. The “truthers” claim that politicians or party activists will state an obvious falsehood as the truth and expect everyone to accept that “truth”. They assert that politicians will never admit to being wrong even when contrary evidence is presented.

A lie told by an idiot is still a lie.

An example of the “truther” argument can be seen in James Fallow’s article about Norah O’Donnell challenge to Paul Ryan. Norah O’Donnell challenged Ryan’s statements about details of his spending proposals.  Even though the article starts with a spurious argument that a lie told by a scoundrel is less damaging to the scoundrel than the damage to an honest man if he lies, it makes an important point about informational asymmetry.

The informational asymmetry between politician (policy wonk) and journalist is often overlooked.  Fallows argues that Norah O’Donnell stood against the post- truth politics challenging Paul Ryan on his claims about budget decisions. Fallows says that in the post-truth era journalists face a triple challenge. First, the politician knows the details, so the journalist has to know as much if not more to challenge. Second, the journalist has to be sure enough of their facts to say the politician is wrong. Third, they have to be sure of their organisational support to do this on live TV.  On the surface, the exchange looks like a journalist holding a politician to account.  However, for Fallows and the “truther” movement, this is a battle for the truth.  In effect, Paul Ryan was lying and Norah O’Donnell was challenging the lie.  The problem, though, is that this is nothing new. It is as old as Plato’s Gorgias and as recent as LBJ and Vietnam.

The information asymmetry between politicians and journalists will always exist.  We saw this with LBJ and Vietnam War reporting,  Outsiders and journalists, in particular, could be deflected or dismissed because they did not have the same information as Johnson.  The President, has historically, had the best intelligence.  To balance the informational asymmetry, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) was developed to help Congress gain access to similar quality information.  However, the issue is deeper than informational asymmetry.  What the always on recording devices and the “truther” movement show is the tension between rhetoric and justice in a democratic state.

On the other hand, your taxes will go up.

The Fallows article and the “truther” movement conflate political rhetoric with political philosophy, which creates the impression that politicians are lying.  In a sense, they are right that politicians only present a partial view of the truth because political rhetoric is only a shadow image of justice. The problems, though, is that a politician is not a political philosopher.  To treat the politician or the statesman as a philosopher forgets the role of political rhetoric in a democracy. Even philosophers need to use rhetoric to defend themselves. The problem though is that the political and the philosopher do not talk to each other.  Strictly speaking, the two never talk. The politician would not listen and the philosopher would not speak to the politician. By misunderstanding the art of rhetoric and the politician’s use of political rhetoric, the “truther” movement has us believe that someone has lied or mislead us because of how they present their information. What this does is denigrate private judgement, what each audience can make of an issue, so there can only be public judgement. By extension, we are forced to accept there can only one way to judge the political good, the common good.

In terms of the politics, the issue can be expressed in the following way.  If you said, “I am going to raise taxes” and did not mention that you would use the taxes to create jobs, build roads, train teachers and protect the country, then you would not get elected.  At the same time, if you promised everything, but did not mention how it was funded, you would not get elected.  The public know that political promises will cost money.  However, if a politician omits the funding costs from his speech, that does not mean they have lied.  Instead, it means that they have presented evidence to persuade their audience.  In that regard, it is up to the audience to question the politician and hold them to account.  At the same time, the politicians are relying on the audience’s private judgement.  Here we see how the “truther” movement connects to the always on recording devices to understand its effect on political discourse.

Truth or politics? The two are separated by rhetoric

The challenge today from the always-on media cycle is that it limits the statesman flexibility.  If politician makes a mistake they may find it difficult to clarify or correct it, which is why we have quote approval news coverage.  The truther movement also constrains the statesman because if he tries to adjust his speech to his audience, he appears to have lied.  Statesmen need to be able to adjust to their speech to their audience because the country is more than one audience.  When constrained, the statesman can only deal with the different audiences as one audience, but they cannot all be spoken to in the same way. Speaking to the common good is different from speaking to an individual audience that makes up the common good.  There may be commonality between the audiences, but there is no ability to adjust and reconcile competing claims into a common good.

If the statesman had to speak to each audience as if he was speaking to all audiences, then he would stop being a statesman. He could not create alliances and balance competing demands. In that regard, he would run counter to what the Federalists intended by encouraging competing demands that would check and balance each other.  For the political system to work, the politicians need flexibility to build alliances between factions.  In that sense, by removing the statesman skill, we remove the art of politics.   Instead of a politics, where we balance competing claims, a politician would have to pursue the highest common denominator, such as national security, or the lowest common denominator, food on the table.  Neither makes for good politics because they do not allow a statesman to leverage the competing individual and group goods into a larger common good. The danger is that a politician will to start with the common good and splinter off parts and play groups against each other.  The common good would be sacrificed as the politician satisfies the largest or most vocal group. He would have a process that confuses the common good (justice) with political rhetoric in that the dominant group’s position is only partial view of the good.

The pursuit of politics as philosophy is a cure worse than the disease

When we claim that a “post-truth politics” exists we confuse philosophy and politics. In academia or in journalism we may believe we pursue or can discover a good, but in politics, the political good, as a truth has to be created. The political good is contested because it is being shaped by political exchange within the limits of the regime.  Political rhetoric allows us to reconcile contested understanding of the public good or the common good. If we pursue the political truth with a philosophical zeal, we face multiple dangers.  We can incite a dangerously immoderate utopianism.  Or, an immoderate politics, in which compromise is impossible. If we pursue truth as a political good, we assume a complete understanding of the truth, the good, or the issue.  The opposite, though, is the case. We have politics because we disagree over the good. We have a limited understanding of the good. If we had a complete understanding of the good, we would not need politics.

The always on recording devices limit the statesman’s flexibility and politics become inflexible.  If the politicians are held to account for persuasive speeches by a public standard, then any private judgements become subsumed by the public judgement.  The common good is not served.  Individuals cannot make their own private judgement, they must accept the public persuasion and public opinion dominates the political arena.   The press, as the guardians of public opinion, shape the public good.  In effect, politics is subsumed by journalism.  At the same time, the statesman cannot use their persuasion skills and knowledge of competing groups to expand the common good.  The always on recording devices do not allow the statesman to serve the common good.  In time, political discourse will be drained of meaning as the statesman or politicians try to adjust the public standard that will fit to any audience at any time.  The “truther” belief in a post-truth politics, compounds the problem.  The statesman cannot seek to use private persuasion, for fear it will be made public, nor can they use their knowledge of other subsidiary arts, because that will be accused of lying or engaging in the post truth politics.

When a statesman cannot build alliances or use public and private persuasion, then he cannot succeed.  The always on recording devices limit the politician’s ability to speak differently to different audiences. When a politician speaks differently to different audiences, he is not being duplicitous.  He is not lying. Instead, he is exercising the political art needed to weave together diverse parts of the electorate into a common good.  If we are to retain a decent politics, it is vital that we teach the public about the statesman’s art of persuasion.  The alternative is a democratic politics that becomes rigid in the pursuit of utopianism or decays into demagoguery.


[1] The line is taken from the email newsletter Next Draft The Noodle Economy 18 September 2012


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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