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Ideas

The case against sincerity in politics

It is a great quality in our friends. But to insist on it in our leaders is asking for trouble

Hanging Richard Nixon mask

John Ioven/Globe Staff

It’s the political gaffe that keeps on giving: When Mitt Romney’s longtime campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked on CNN if Romney risked losing moderate voters by appearing too conservative in the Republican primaries, Fehrnstrom replied: “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch: You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Pummeled by the left, Fehrnstrom quickly explained that he was talking about campaign strategy, not about his boss’s core beliefs. Too late: His words played to a common perception of Romney as a candidate who shifts with the wind, the insincere politician who will say anything to get elected. Insincerity is what voters heard in Richard Nixon’s voice when he said, “I am not a crook” just months before resigning in the Watergate scandal; the same charge has hurt Democrats, too, with John Kerry demonized as a flip-flopper who voted for one thing, and then against it. And Bill Clinton’s denials, and then admissions, in the Monica Lewinsky case made him the modern poster boy for presidential insincerity.

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Our obsession with sincerity is understandable. It’s clearly a virtue we want in our friends and family, and one that the world would be much worse off without. We want to be able to trust people to do what they say and to stick to what they promised.

But is sincerity in our politicians always the best barometer of their worth as leaders? Probably not. In the realm of politics, in fact, the demand for sincerity is relatively new, a legacy of Reformation-era religion that only in recent decades has come to seem as important, or even more important than, qualities like leadership, managerial skill, or knowledge. For varying reasons, sincerity is uniquely prized by both right and left. But by fixating on candidates’ sincerity, we risk ignoring their more significant political traits, and we’re rejecting qualities -- like the ability to compromise -- that might, in the complex world of democratic politics, be considerably more useful virtues.

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IN THE LONG HISTORY of political thought, sincerity has, if anything, been discouraged. When Niccolò Machiavelli advised would-be leaders that “those who have accomplished great deeds are those who have thought little about keeping faith,” he was drawing on an ancient tradition: Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle all justified the “noble lie,” which placed lofty public goals ahead of personal morality. The raison d’état (reason of state), which advises hard national interest over the avoidance of hypocrisy, has long been understood as necessary to effective leadership.

For the rise of sincerity as a political virtue, we can thank the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. The word “sincerity,” from the Latin sincerus, was originally used to describe the integrity of physical things (glass, wine, gems), but during the Reformation it was recast as a human characteristic--attributed to a person who was “honest and straightforward,” who showed himself outwardly to be what he was inwardly. Martin Luther stressed the importance of sincere repentance before God, and an English reformer named John Frith first used the word in 1533 to describe the scholar John Wycliffe as “a man of a very sincere life.” A few years later, in 1536, John Calvin, forefather of American Puritanism, wrote, “The principal thing--that which God especially requires--is to bring a sincere heart.” Personal sincerity came to be a marker for many Protestant reformers of the true Christian, particularly set against their tricky Catholic brethren.

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Protestant ministers from London to Boston--important community and political leaders of their day--prided themselves on being sincere and speaking from the heart (thus the invention of the sermon; reading from prepared texts was for Anglicans). Among the founding figures of Harvard was the minister Thomas Shepard, author of the immensely influential “Sincere Convert” (1641). And like Harvard, Yale was established for the “Sincere Regard & Zeal for upholding & Propagating of the Christian Protestant Religion.”

But personal sincerity didn’t remain just a test for religiously committed Puritan congregations; it would eventually be embraced by European and American Romantics in a more individualist spirit. It owes its spread foremost to the 18th-century political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Raised a Calvinist in Geneva, Rousseau moved to Paris and found its affected arts-and-science-loving secular society to be superficial and destructive to human happiness. “The plain and noble effusions of an honest soul,” he wrote in 1758, “speak a language far different from the insincere demonstrations of politeness (and the false appearances) which the customs of the great world demand.” Rousseau’s books lit the spark of Romanticism, the 19th-century movement whose artists, writers, and poets demanded sincerity of expression above all else in order to stand against the false finesses of the world. In America, figures like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson digested and reconfigured these Protestant-derived Romantic ideas, leading Emerson to observe in the 1840s, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.” Emerson’s celebrated acolyte Henry David Thoreau, of course, fashioned himself a shack in the Concord woods and lived there, Emerson wrote, as “sincerity itself.”

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IT’S NOT HARD to see both those threads at work in our politics today, with ideologically committed conservatives and liberals alike blaming the other for craftiness--even though they both, naturally, engage in it. Sincerity has become a shared moral benchmark. The sociologist David Riesman observed this new political fixation in the 1950s, during the first Eisenhower campaign, when an increased desire for a sincere presidential candidate evidenced “a desire to escape from cynicism and apathy into commitment and enthusiasm.” Americans wanted to believe in their own upright artlessness, as they often have, and they were willing to drop critical thought, disagreeableness, and suspicion to do it.

But this new focus came with a cost: Because for some voters a premium was put on the detection of a candidate’s sincerity, Riesman warned, “A premium was put on faking it.” And this concentration had the ill effect, he also noted, of distracting voters from their politicians’ incompetence--that is to say, from the absence of more important qualities, such as effectiveness, intelligence, and geopolitical savvy. Riesman did not look kindly on this change: “The concern for sincerity in political personalities,” he wrote, “becomes a vice.”

The increasing desire for emotional earnestness that Riesman noted in 1950s was joined by a new appetite for sincerity from the left in the 1960s. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, and those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the continuing racial injustices and tensions over the Vietnam War, many hippies, artists, and writers became convinced that modern America was morally hypocritical; its high ideals did not match reality. The only way to be a sincere, authentic person--as it had been since the Reformation--was to stand inwardly against it all.

In this way, the preoccupation with sincerity is what actually unites modern American conservatives and liberals, however little they might recognize it. A Jan. 30, 2012, USA Today / Gallup poll about the frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination asked whether each was “sincere and authentic”--a category that ancient political leaders would have been surprised to see listed alongside “leadership qualities” and the “ability to manage government effectively.” Current competitors for top office continue to vie for the badge of sincerity--to be seen as the candidate who not only means what he says, but who means it the most. This understanding of the virtue is definitely what motivates Rick Santorum to so often express “what is in my heart.”

But like it or not, all politics is performance. It is the realm where individuals don a public mask and leave behind their strictly private concerns in order to project a set of values and policy ideas. This projection may or may not be what a candidate feels in private--but, really, should we care? Despite our powerful romantic or puritan leanings, we would be wise to recall that the public mask is not bad; we don’t have to get “underneath it” to get to the real individual in order to value the policy ideas he or she proposes. The political face is a necessary fiction, particularly if we expect candidates to be able to compromise enough to actually achieve party goals.

Joh Ioven/Globe Staff

Sincerity, at its heart, is a demand to place on private individuals in the private sphere. To ask that the intimately personal be trotted out in public is to mix categories that need to remain separate to function. The personal may be political, but the political need not be personal. “I don’t think you want too much sincerity in society,” the writer W. Somerset Maugham once remarked. “It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.”

We need not fear that truth will be lost in keeping the distinction: Sincerity, after all, is not the same thing as honesty, which means saying what you know to be true about objective things or events, regardless of how you feel about them. Sincerity is also not the same as frankness, which means revealing one’s judgment even though that judgment might offend. Being sincere is a rather more tricky state of affairs: It means conveying truthfully (truthily?) one’s innermost thoughts or emotions, no matter how relevant, factually wrong, or counterproductive. Sincerity, in other words, is a necessary quality to have between friends and intimates. Each can comfort or correct the other when their worries, hopes, and beliefs seem out of touch, or need consolation. But people on the hunt for the truly sincere public figure--and the public figure who wishes to be seen as such--would be wise to heed the words of an old Irish sage: “The worst vice of a fanatic,” Oscar Wilde quipped, “is his sincerity.”

But the demand for the sincere performance will likely play just as much a role in this election as it did in the last, and not without hilarious results: In 2008 Forbes published a numbered list of the “Most Sincere Presidential Candidates,” among them Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michael Bloomberg. Coming out on top was former Tennessee senator and “Law and Order” district attorney Fred Thompson, “the most sincere of the 14 presidential candidates of both political parties.” The survey attributed Thompson’s high ranking to--more than anything else--his having “spent the past five years on television honing his sincerity.”

R. Jay Magill Jr. is the author of “Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull),” forthcoming from W.W. Norton in July 2012.

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