Democratic Bullshit

Is democracy bullshit?

Actually, the question isn’t whether or not democracy is bullshit, but whether the bullshit of democracy is being put to good use.

First, what is bullshit? As Harry Frankfurt established, lying and bullshitting are not the same, although they may overlap. Let me explain.

Both liar and bullshitter aim to deceive, but in different ways and for different purposes. The liar wants his victim to believe what is not the case. In doing so, the liar necessarily misrepresents himself as believing something he does not believe, but self-misrepresentation is not necessarily his primary aim. In the case of the bullshitter, however, self-misrepresentation is always primary. The bullshitter is up to something, and he does not want his victim to catch on.

The essence of bullshit, in other words, is that it is inauthentic. A bullshitter wants you to believe he knows something he does not, can do something he cannot, and more fundamentally is something or someone he is not. A bullshitter, therefore, may not lie at all. A man may bullshit about carpentry with the aim of inducing you to take him as a genuine carpenter, without saying anything at all false about carpentry.

It’s because of the intimate relationship between bullshit and authenticity that we’re inclined to feel that politics is bullshit. Politicians, by and large, are not authentic. This is not, however, a damning criticism. In fact, it isn’t a criticism at all.

At the state and national level, a politician’s job is to hold together a winning coalition of voting blocs and interest groups. In this game, authenticity is a liability. You must address each bloc and interest in ways that make their issues and concerns seem central, and that means tailoring the enthusiasm you express to the audience you must impress. You must be able to explain the concerns of different constituencies to one another while appearing trustworthy to all, assure them all that their interests are being equally well addressed, and unite them around a legislative agenda. To do this, you must be many things to many people. To do that, you may have to bullshit.

The demand for authenticity in a democracy is a sign of its immaturity. Democracy doesn’t thrive on sincerity. It needs people who can say what needs to be said, under the circumstances, to advance the coalition’s interests.

Saying what needs to be said often requires saying something different from what you’ve been saying. This is characteristic of effective political leaders. Beware the politician whose supporters boast that their leader has never altered his positions on the issues.

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