Is Honest Politics Possible?

" Those who desire to treat politics and morals separately will never understand anything of either." So wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and I agree. The practice of politics not only can but must be reconciled with the imperatives of honesty.

But what is honesty or dishonesty in a politician? Is it possible for a politician to be honest at all?

The question goes to the heart of democracy. When voters write off politicians as dishonest, anti-democratic movements thrive. Yet all politicians know that ambiguity and compromise tend to prevail over universal truths. Sometimes one must choose the lesser evil. Our ordinary standards of decency and righteousness cannot always be applied - but not because cynicism and hypocrisy are all that matter in politics.

Consider, for example, that prince of ambiguity, the Duc de Talleyrand. Not only corrupt, but a notorious traitor to consecutive masters, Talleyrand was said to have failed to sell his own mother only because there were no takers. Yet, although serially disloyal to French rulers, Talleyrand probably never betrayed France.

Political dishonesty, it turns out, takes different forms. Let us identify the various types. One type is someone who is a dishonest man or woman to begin with. Such a person will be a dishonest leader, ideologue, or diplomat in any circumstance.

Another type is the well-meaning dilettante. Clumsy and amateurish, the dilettante's actions harm the interests he aims to advance.

Political "gamblers," on the other hand, put competence to bad use. They are skilled but ruthless, lack humility and eschew reflection. The gambler's close kin is the political "troublemaker," who pursues his soaring ambitions by any means necessary, whatever the risks and regardless of the cost to others.

The political "fanatic" is also dishonest, for he is blinded by the conviction that he is absolutely right in all cases. The fanatic is inflexible and inertial, a steamroller ready to flatten everything in his way. By contrast, the political "wheeler-dealer" is no less dishonest, for he lacks what the first President Bush called the "vision thing." He is spineless, devoid of principle, and retreats in the face of responsibility.

Beyond these distinct types of dishonest politicians are more general political postures. Cynical forms of pragmatism take the lead, embodied in the principle that the end justifies the means whenever moral imperatives conflict with political interests.

At the other extreme is a naive, utopian, and moralistic stance that is equally dishonest. Its acolytes deplore the grit and relativism of politics and issue futile appeals for moral revivals. But things are not that simple. History is not an idyll and politicians' biographies do not read like the lives of the saints. Paradoxically, if all people were honest, politics would become redundant.

This does not mean that we cannot identify honest politicians when we see them. Immanuel Kant described two types of politicians. The political moralist wants to "hammer out morality" in keeping with the requirements of politics construed as a cynical game. It is a label that easily applies to all the types of dishonest politicians described above.

Kant's second type is the moral politician , who rejects cynical pragmatism but does not succumb to naive moralising. An honest politician is someone who regards politics as a tool for achieving the common good. He is not naive, and knows that patience, compromise, and a policy of small steps are often needed. Yet in pursuing partial goals he will not lose sight of higher objectives.

An honest politician, in short, pursues a pragmatism built on principles, on the courage to say unpleasant things, but always with a constructive attitude. Indeed, irresponsible criticism - the eagerness to expose and publicize a problem, unmatched by the willingness to propose feasible solutions - is perhaps the most common form of dishonesty in politics.

This is why actual governance is so often the best test of political honesty. In democratic countries, if politicians who are critical of others while in opposition prove to be ineffective when in government, voters can - and often do - punish their dishonesty at the ballot box.

The toughest test of an honest politician comes when he or she must defend ideas that are unpopular but right. Not everyone passes such a test, particularly when elections are approaching. However, only the dishonest politician equates politics exclusively with popularity.

At the same time, a moral politician never succeeds single-handedly in ensuring the common good. Only when politicians support one another's decency can they be confident that in critical moments for the state, they can rise above their political divisions.

But political honesty is not the sole responsibility of politicians. Public opinion must play its part as well. After all, political honesty - and honest politicians - is more likely to take root in a society marked by a culture of tolerance, solidarity, and the equal enjoyment of individual rights. Political mischief-makers do poorly in such soil.

I am a political practitioner, first and foremost. So I know that no theory, no amount of analysis, can free a politician from bouts of soul-searching, from troubling his or her conscience with questions about what is and what is not honest when confronting political choices. Above all else, the honest politician willingly shoulders this burden.