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Read: Behind the masks

With George Orwell, the patron saint of straight-talking as his guide, David Runciman asks when openness becomes just another form of hypocrisy - Guardian, May 17, 2008

Modern democratic politics sometimes seems to have been reduced to a game of hunt the hypocrite. Politicians who do not practise what they preach are an affront to democratic sensibilities, because they seem to be setting themselves apart from the rest of us, obeying their own private rules. The same goes for politicians who do not tell us what they really believe (which is the classical definition of a hypocrite - someone who “masks” the real person underneath). We want our politicians to be sincere, so that we can know they are not hiding anything from us. So all politicians are ceaselessly probed for the little inconsistencies, double standards, concealments and obfuscations that indicate a hypocrite, by opponents who know what damage that label can do. Almost all negative political advertising is essentially an attempt to show that a rival candidate for office is not as good as he or she pretends to be. And that’s why negative advertising works.

This obsession with sincerity, and loathing of bogus sentiment, has benefited some politicians and damaged others. George W Bush, Tony Blair, John McCain and Barack Obama have all taken advantage of the premium we place on politicians who seem to be comfortable in their own skin, and with their own values; Al Gore, John Kerry, Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton have all suffered from appearing to hold something back, so that we can never be sure who it is we are dealing with. Brown in particular is paying the price for his inability to come to terms with the new confessional politics. People want to know who he really is, but if what he is really is a cautious and reserved politician who plays the percentages, then the public don’t want to know. So he is forced to tour the daytime-TV sofas trying to show his human side, and ends up revealing only how uncomfortable he is with the politics of self-revelation. His caution and his constant calculation make him look like a man in a mask - the classic hypocrite with something to hide.

But there aren’t really any winners here. The sincere politicians soon find that they too look like people with something to hide, since no one can withstand the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle. They also discover that no one can survive without chipping away at the sincerity of their opponents. McCain and Obama want to offer a truth-telling politics that stands above partisan bickering, but they also have to make sure that no one is fooled by the fake versions on offer elsewhere. So the straight-talking politicians, as they allow their proxies to rubbish their rivals, end up looking like hypocrites too.

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