Probably the single most interesting moment of the debate cycle was the question of whether it was ok for a politician to be two-faced. Clinton’s response struck me. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that sometimes a politician needs to have different arguments for different audiences, and that can often seem like having both a private and public face. She invoked Lincoln to say that only by having tailored arguments for different audiences, could he manage to get important legislation passed.
Let’s consider the efficiency of the ‘single argument for all audiences’ versus its effectiveness for a moment. A government is not like a corporation. Corporations have shareholders they are responsible to. A few may also care about a small set of stakeholders that have other motives than profit; for instance by using a balanced scorecard or triple bottom line approach. A government has many more stakeholders to contend with. For a corporation to function effectively, there has to be alignment between its functions. Whether it is marketing or IT or operations, the organization must move together to succeed.
For a government, getting total alignment is not possible. Unlike employees, who can be coerced and incented to tow the line, a government forms a compromise over time. In a compromise, each party gives something up to get something else. The arguments used to get, say, an oil company to accept a carbon tax, would not be the same as those used to get a pipeline built across the Canadian border. A politician who says to the oil companies that a carbon tax is necessary to preserve the climate would not be aligned with his other face that argues for the pipeline with economic reasoning (development and cheaper oil).
To a climate advocate, a politician that pushes for a carbon tax and a pipeline at the same time, would likely be judged as two-faced. However, the politician’s job is not really just to take a position. Maybe the politician’s job is to get some resolution of the issues that cause conflict in and divide society, even if it means making arguments that seem contradictory. But if regular use of conflicting arguments leads to a degradation of trust in the politician over time, then his reputation may be damaged and future arguments may not be as persuasive. Does multi-argument stakeholder management then require a kind of cloak of secrecy (non-disclosure of “private” statements)?
When Lincoln executed his great moment of political mastery, he relied on the slowness of mail communication and the secrecy of his colleagues. If they went around spreading doubt or disclosing private statements, the jig would have been up pretty quickly. In the information age, only by putting on an event behind a locked and guarded door, and by impounding technology at the door could such a feat be achieved. A single Tweet could have stalled freedom in 1862. People are generally very bad a keeping secrets. They leak out for many reasons—booze, love and fame come to mind. To some who want a secret kept, the deterioration of memories and the lack of recording devices combine with the staleness of a late reveal to work in favor of the politician with a short game to play; like preventing an economic depression, a war, or a revolution.
By contrast, a single-message politician can hope for efficiencies. If you are always saying the same thing, you can just say it once. It is easier to remember a single argument and easier to repeat promptly. There is less bickering about what is being said or not said, and there is more general confidence in the leader’s candidness and honesty. However, this efficiency seems to breakdown when more than one party is involved in the decision. A single message might move the parties closer to conflict, or force one of the key stakeholder groups to withdraw from the negotiating table without resolution.
Clearly, I don’t have a moral answer to resolve the paradox of justifying means with ends, but I thought it was an interesting exchange between the candidates. One seems to be arguing about means, the other about ends.