Cynicism in politics?

Paul Krugman noticed the cynic at work in a recent Romney gaffe and its aftermath:

Speaking in Michigan, Mr. Romney was asked about deficit reduction, and he absent-mindedly said something completely reasonable: “If you just cut, if all you’re thinking about doing is cutting spending, as you cut spending you’ll slow down the economy.” A-ha. So he believes that cutting government spending hurts growth, other things equal.

Romney, it seems, is a closeted Keynesian, which is a sin against modern Republicanism far worse than being a closeted gay man!

Romney aide Ryan Williams quickly attempted to control the damage Romney’s lapse caused:

“The governor’s point was that simply slashing the budget, with no affirmative pro-growth policies, is insufficient to get the economy turned around. However, he believes that budget cuts — especially in the context of President Obama’s unprecedented spending explosion — are a step in the right direction. As he made clear in his economic plan, he believes that spending cuts that reduce the size of government and balance the budget are crucial to economic growth and job creation.”

How might we reconcile Romney’s claim about government spending cuts and Ryan William’s ‘explanation’? It so happens that the two cannot be reconciled. Market fundamentalism demands that one makes a choice. One is either a fundamentalist or not. Krugman cheerfully concludes from this episode that Romney “…is running a campaign of almost pathological dishonesty.” Krugman continues to mine this political gold:

Every one of the Romney campaign’s major themes, from the attacks on President Obama for going around the world apologizing for America (he didn’t), to the insistence that Romneycare and Obamacare are very different (they’re virtually identical), to the claim that Mr. Obama has lost millions of jobs (which is only true if you count the first few months of his administration, before any of his policies had taken effect), is either an outright falsehood or deeply deceptive. Why the nonstop mendacity?

As I see it, it comes down to the cynicism underlying the whole enterprise. Once you’ve decided to hide your beliefs and say whatever you think will get you the nomination, to pretend to agree with people you privately believe are fools, why worry at all about truth?

Of course, I want to mention here that Barack Obama openly played to his party’s base in 2008. They believed him to be a left-of-center reformer and a defender of the rule of law while President Obama has been anything but such. That difference, namely, the gap between candidate Obama’s rhetoric and President Obama’s actions, reflects the cynicism which inheres in his political project. That project culminated with his winning the election, taking power and then serving the interests of the moneyed elite that paid for much of his campaign.

Cynics act as their wishes demand. Principles, truth, honesty, good faith, humanity — these are just tools the politician-cynic uses in her quest for power, as Machiavelli explained centuries back:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated [see this chapter], but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

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