While it is tempting to think of politics as the art of lying, I contend that it requires good faith honesty. This is based on my very conventional pragmatic political philosophy. As would be expected, I accept that the legitimacy of the state rests on the consent of the governed; thinkers like Locke and Hobbes have advanced better arguments than I can provide in support of this view. When it comes to consent, I agree with Socrates’ remarks in the Crito. For a person to consent to the rule of the state, they can neither be deceived nor coerced. People must also have the opportunity to provide this consent; in a democracy (or republic) one means of providing consent is by voting—which is why easy and secure voting is essential to the political legitimacy of a democratic state.
Lying in politics can thus undermine legitimacy—if people make decisions based on lies, then they are not providing true consent. After all, their decision might very well change if they knew the truth. For example, consider the election lies advanced by Trump and his followers. While many people are going along with what they know is a lie (thus they are providing consent), there are presumably some people who are supporting the new voter restrictions only because they believe the election lies. If they knew the truth, these people would not consent to them.
The obvious counter is to argue that all that matters in politics is winning. While this does have some appeal if one is a realist, it is also to explicitly reject the notion that legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed. Which is something many Republicans seem to have done.
Like Locke and many other thinkers, I also subscribe to majority rule. Once again, I defer to the arguments offered by Locke and thinkers superior to me. Because of concerns about tyranny and oppression, I also accept the notion of rights against the state aimed at protecting people from the dangers of majority rule. Naturally, I also largely agree with J.S. Mill on the tyranny of the majority: each of us needs protection from all of us to enjoy our liberties and rights.
Majority rule requires good faith, since voting (as noted above) is a matter of consent and thus requires an absence of fraud and force. If rights and liberties are to be protected against tyranny, then honesty is required. If, for example, a politician lies about the negative effect of their proposed law on free expression in the context of political protests, then their law could be accepted due to this fraud. This would make the law doubly bad; it would be accepted based on fraud and would do harm to the rights of citizens. This, as one would suspect, is why those who want to impose on liberty and rights lie about their intentions and the impact of the impositions. For example, Republicans in Florida have passed an anti-protest law by pitching it as an anti-riot law. This law seems to clearly infringe on the First Amendment; but it will be up to the courts to decide this legal issue. Morally, however, it is clearly wrong on the grounds that it is aimed at suppressing free expression through the threat of coercion.
I also agree with Locke’s view that the purpose of the state is the good of the people. While people disagree about what the good is, this notion does require good faith in politics. While not all interests are morally legitimate, everyone has legitimate interests that need to be considered when determining the good of the people. While this entails that we are obligated to listen to people when they tell us their interests, it also entails that people should be honest when expressing those interests. One reason is that if someone lies about their political interests, then consent cannot be given when decisions are made—their fraud precludes proper consent on the part of others. Another reason is that a false interest is obviously not a real interest—so when a person lies about their true interest, they sabotage the process of achieving the good of the people. After all, the rest of us cannot consider the person’s true interests when they are lying about them.
As would be expected, people often lie about their interests when they think others would see their true interests as wrong or at least unreasonable. While it can be difficult to sort out a person’s true political interest, the usual test is to examine their actions and lack of actions to sort out the matter. For example, various states are rushing to pass anti-trans bills that politicians claim are based on their interest in fairness in sports. While fairness is a laudable interest, there is the question of whether these Republicans are acting from this interest. The easy check is to investigate the bills they have also supported and, which can often be more telling, look at what they have not done. For example, Republicans in Florida claim to support their anti-trans bill based on an interest in fairness, yet if they really cared about fairness for women then they would have ratified the ERA. As such, their profession of an interest in fairness would seem to be fraud. Rather, their interest seems to be signaling their base that they also hate and fear trans people. Obviously, if they presented their real interest in good faith, that would make them look terrible—and rightfully so. Which is why they do not operate in good faith.
Being honest about the facts is also important in the context of interests. After all, if the alleged facts are lies, then consent is not possible. Also, if lies are advanced to support a political interest, then that interest will not be supported. A horrific example of this is the big lie being advanced by Trump and his fellows about the election. While Trump and his fellows do have a legitimate interest in the election, the claims of widespread voter fraud are untrue. As such, Trump is trying to serve his interest with lies. To tie it all together, I will now turn to a non-political analogy.
Imagine that Doug, who loves meat, is on a softball team with the vegan Karen. After a big game out of town, the team is going out to dinner. Karen loathes Doug and wants to “own” him by making his dinner as awful as possible. Karen knows that if she is honest about this, some people on the team will not vote with her. So, she is careful to conceal that and just says she wants what is best and fair for everyone.
Karen knows that the Angry Carrot restaurant is completely vegan, crazy expensive, and serves microscopic portions. It also does not serve any alcohol. Karen knows that her teammates want large portions at a good price, that many of them like meat, and that most of them want alcohol. So, Karen lies about all this—she says the prices are great, the portions huge, there are many choices on the menu and that the beer will flow like water. She neglects to mention that Doug’s ex-girlfriend will be there as well, singing in the band Meat is Mega Genocide for the entertainment of the vegans.
To ensure she wins, Karen makes sure that the vote is conducted while those who would vote against her are still in the locker room. The team members present vote based on Karen’s lies and she wins. The team arrives at the Angry Carrot and many of them are dismayed by what they find: vegan only fare, microscopic portions, high prices and no beer. Doug is also shocked when his ex-girlfriend jumps up on the table and screams “meat is murder!” at him while she performs her song.
While some of the teammates grumble, Karen’s buddy Tucker reinforces her lies: he gushes about the diverse options on the menu, says that the portions are huge and amazingly cheap, and tells everyone that the water is beer. Some teammates, who also dislike Doug, go along with the lies— “owning” Doug makes it all worthwhile. A few teammates believe Karen and Tucker, somehow getting drunk on the water. Doug and most other teammates have a terrible time and when they complain, Karen and Tucker point out that they voted to go here. When Doug points out that some people were kept from voting and that Karen lied about everything, Karen replies that elections have consequences, and that Doug should go along with her otherwise he is dividing the team with his hate. She adds a bit about Doug being too woke and then accuses him of trying to cancel her. Disgusted, Doug leaves in search of beer and BBQ. While this has been great for Karen, it has been awful for Doug and bad for most of the team. Bad faith in politics works the same way.