To lead or follow

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I apologize, but I need to digress from Pioneer’s usual topics of research and commentary.

Though politicians are ultimately responsible for public policy, politics is not something Pioneer usually delves into. That being said, David Runciman’s piece on political hypocrisy in the Ideas section of today’s Globe bothered me.

To begin with, Mr. Runciman never exactly defines what he means by political hypocrisy. In fact, the definition, at least as he conceives it, seems inordinately broad, including, for example, a politician who might change his or her stance on an issue in the face of evidence supporting a contrary position. What is hypocritical about that, I don’t know. I would have thought the hypocrite is the politician who, having considered overwhelming evidence contrary to his or her position, refuses to change it for politically expedient reasons.

Then there is Runciman’s use of the authorial “we”, as in

Perhaps we should ask not what this says about the politicians but what it says about us. We can dress up our dislike of hypocrisy in principled terms, and spout pieties about the importance of trust and integrity. But we need to recognize that along with hating hypocrisy, we love it as well – that is, we love seeing it exposed. Who hasn’t watched with satisfaction as a politician is hoisted by his own petard? But part of the pleasure, if we are honest with ourselves, is schadenfreude, and comes from our relief that we are not subject to the same standards.

I’m always so pleased when an author chooses to tell me what I have or haven’t done, said, thought or felt. I’m glad that Mr. Runciman did such extensive research for his forthcoming book that he polled the question of hypocrisy and determined that 100% of his respondents are always satisfied to see political hypocrisy exposed and that the same percentage of respondents always feel that way because of schadenfreude. For if he hasn’t, he needs to use a different pronoun.

I suspect the authorial “we” is a writer’s last resort to convince his readers of his thesis. Having failed to persuade through the compilation of empirical evidence or the flourish of rhetoric, he simply drafts them to his cause by reverting to the first person plural. Would political persuasion really that easy.

Finally, though, the issue to which I take the greatest objection is Mr. Runciman’s failure to differentiate between strategic and tactical goals. He uses the current Iraq war as an example of consistency’s failure. Of George Bush and Tony Blair, he writes:

Neither was a hypocrite, and both held the course on Iraq with near perfect consistency. But the results, nearly five years later, suggest there are worse things than hypocrisy.

Even if one glibly assumes the results of the President’s and Prime Minister’s decision to invade Iraq have turned out to be, indeed, disastrous (though, in fact, I do), I contend that subsequently holding “the course on Iraq” is a tactical decision, not a strategic one. The strategic goal, as oft-stated by the President, is a free and democratic Iraq. Holding the present military course may not be the best way to achieve that goal, but I don’t know very many people who would disagree that it isn’t, at the very least, a noble one.

Democracy is based on compromise. Without it, democracy cannot function (which is why the increasingly partisan nature of our politics is a threat to our democracy). But a leader must possess clearly stated strategic goals that are based on deeply held principles and from which he or she refuses to waver. Otherwise, he or she wouldn’t be a leader; they’d be a follower.