Already this year we've had Spitzer. Last year we had Senator Craig. I'm sure anyone could find examples of hypocrisy in government (or any major organization). But, especially in government, why? If you, as a politician, build your career around a certain value or set of values, why would you jeopardize that career by violating that very value (in secret or not)? It's easy to jump to the word "hypocrite" when thinking of this situation. And the word may, indeed, be valid in some or all of the recent situations, but boiling them down to a single, vague, word overlooks what could be important questions about our government in favor of a quick condemnation. An analysis of "hypocrisy" fails to address the important question of why politicians (and people, too) do stupid, often contradictory things.
A Stanford sociologist, Richard LaPiere, explored a similar trait in Americans in the 1930s. He noticed a contradiction in the way people were reported to treat Chinese immigrants and the way people actually treated them. Subsequently he did a study, finding four categories of human behavior that may seem obvious, but ones we often overlook as unified and simple.
LaPiere defined four behaviors in The Sociological Significance of Measurable Attitudes (1938) that can be performed in situations (176):
- Overt-Symbolic: "verbalized" acts (speaking, writing, gestures, etc) involving a symbolic situation
- Overt-Nonsymbolic: physical actions that bear a direct result on a real situation
- Covert-Symbolic: thoughts
- Covert-Nonsymbolic: feeling-states and emotions
A large part of LaPiere's work rests on the observation that these behaviors can, and mostly do, conflict with each other. That is, it is possible for one to engage in an overt-symbolic manner and profess environmental consciousness while, at the same time, behaving in a covert-symbolic manner by thinking about investing in an environmentally destructive company. At a glance, it seems as though this is merely a pretentious method to describe hypocrisy. So why is it so important?
Looking at Senator Craig, one may be inclined to judge his attitude as conservative, and predict with a pretty high degree of accuracy his actions. In 1999 he denounced the Clinton-Lewinksy affair, saying "I'm going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy." In 2005 he was given a 96/100 by the American Conservative Union for his voting record. But, as is well known, he was arrested in 2007 for something, well, not very conservative. And the Spitzer incident is still pretty fresh in our memories, which also exemplifies contradictions in behaviors. Again, why?
LaPiere may not explain their individual actions and choices, but he offers some explanations, which we can interpret. With the first explanation he describes what is essentially acting on ignorance. He says in Attitudes vs. Actions (in Teaching and Research in the Social Sciences) (1934) that "social attitudes are seldom more than a verbal response to a symbolic situation" (230). He argues that, usually, when forming a symbolic response to a social situation, a person is not faced with the situation, but is creating a representative situation to respond to. As such, the overt-symbolic behaviors may be based on stereotypical or common (including flawed) views of a specific social situation. Because of this, the symbolic situation may vary from the real situation, resulting in one of two situations, that I can determine. One can transform the overt-symbolic actions into overt-nonsymbolic actions, and act true to one's word, despite being faced with a different situation (in fact, it is this sort of thing that contributed to the governmental failure that made the Sept. 11 attacks easier). Or, one can adapt a "new" or different overt-nonsymbolic behavior to the actual situation (hypocrisy).
Another explanation the sociologist describes is directly related to democracy and our political process. LaPiere describes a potential conflict between the overt-symbolic and covert behaviors of individuals as a result of appealing to an influential authority. For example, Noam Chomsky noted in the documentary The Corporation that it is perfectly plausible to have an individual within a decidedly "evil" corporation that is not a particularly evil person himself. Presumably a benevolent CEO or middle manager may subvert his own good nature for the approval (or good) of the company that provides that person a job.
Is it that difficult to imagine this situation being applied to politics? I don't think so. It is possible that some of these "hypocrites" suffer from a dissonance between their overt-symbolic behaviors and their covert behaviors because it is difficult to win an election without aligning overt-symbolic behaviors (speeches, essays, bills, gestures), with what the voters expect, despite what one may think or feel (covert behaviors).
Think John McCain. I saw a Gallup Poll in USA Today recently that asked, "How important is it that John McCain choose [a running mate] that is considerably more conservative on issues than he is?" The top two answers, totaling 69% of the responses, were: "Very (33%)" and "Somewhat (36%)". The second question showed that a large portion of the Republican voters that responded would vote for McCain simply because it's a vote against the Democrats. So, as it stands, it's relatively important that McCain use a more conservative VP to anchor himself to the conservative base, but it is also important that he isn't attitudinally a Democrat. Because of this situation, McCain provides an excellent example of a politician standing out of his party because his covert behaviors don't completely align with what the conservative voters define as a conservative enough attitude. Indeed, this certainly implies there is a possibility that some politicians do modify their overt-symbolic behaviors to fit in (and some of them may successful force their overt-nonsymbolic behaviors to comply).
Again, Spitzer and Craig may very well be hypocrites, and I'm certainly not attempting to excuse them. I've merely used them to establish the language, and as examples. I'm by no means implying, either, that we should blame their offenses on anyone else. Rather, we can use their mistakes to develop ideas about other politicians and trends, and come up with some questions. For example, I've already used this article to implicitly ask what effect voters have on the four types of behaviors (which is a difficult question to answer, because the covert behaviors are pretty well impossible to determine with great accuracy).
Given the two explanations for conflicting behaviors, we should ask of the first, how can we bring more perspective to politicians? Most likely, the experience of politicians and the experience of the average person seems to differ greatly, and it is key to ask how more politicians can make more judgments on real situations, as opposed to the merely symbolic ones. How we use this information to bring their overt-symbolic and overt-nonsymbolic behaviors closer together? Or how can the symbolic situations they envision mimic reality more accurately?
Of the second explanation we can ask if voters undermine the democratic process by creating candidates that win by catering to our views, despite their own, which perhaps contradict ours. Or do we have politicians that simply want it so bad that they lie, willingly, to get the vote? And if so, why do we stand for either situation?
I won't pretend to know the answers to these questions, or if they're even the most specific questions to ask (I'll save that for the comments). But I do believe that until we start asking more questions about why our politicians are the way they are, and why they do the things we do, and what effect voters have on that, we'll never fix our democracy.