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Friday, October 5, 2012

Romney’s “About-Face”: A Candidate’s Conflict-of-Interest

As was demonstrated in September 2008 as banks began to stop lending to each other even overnight, trust is the foundation, or grundlagen, of a market. The same is true in relationships between people. I would be surprised were a marriage ever the same after even a contrite spouse has had an extramarital affair. The same is true in politics; once the electorate has been lied to, it is very hesitant to remove the asterisk next to the politician’s name. The relevance of a politician’s extra-marital affair, such as the flowery lapse of Gary Hart or the sordid stains of Bill Clinton, is that the people conclude that they, like the wives, could be betrayed. Once established, a lack of trust tends to spread like an invidious cancer until it has encompassed the entire body politic. The shift is from justice to a lack of harmony on many levels.
Plato theorized that justice is the harmony within the rational psyche and polis (city, or country) as well as between the heavenly spheres (planets and stars)—the harmony between the rational and the vibrations of the spheres being in sync, which is justice itself. It follows that a person who lets his or her desires run rampant is in line with a squalid or aggressive city, and that neither of these shares in the musical/mathematic harmonious vibrations of and between the heavenly spheres. Lack of trust at the personal, business, or civic level can be said to be a symptom of the shift from the condition of harmony, and thus justice, to discord.
It follows that in a republic or union thereof, it is vital to maintaining justice (as harmony) that the electorate not be as sheep in taking in that which a politician claims regarding what he or she “really believes.” Once a candidate has stupidly lapsed in terms of trustworthiness, the electorate should be cognizant of the conflict of interest in the candidate later dismissing the substance of his or her real feelings or beliefs. In general, if a candidate’s statement is in line with him or her getting elected, a due dose of salt should be taken with that dish.
I have in mind Mitt Romney’s statement at a closed-door fundraiser in September 2012 that nearly half of Americans don’t pay income taxes, view themselves as victims, and refuse to take responsibility for their lives, wanting to live off entitlement programs instead. Some seventeen days later, after even prominent office-holders in his own party distanced themselves from his view, the presidential candidate stated publically, “In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.” The question is whether this electorally-convenient “change in belief” is believable, given its consistency with electoral victory.

              Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, in an image tailor-made as "brand image" for generic consumption.  Reuters
For an electorate to be like sheep is to ignore the conflict of interest and take at face value whatever a candidate says. Simply being on television brings with it the veneer of official truth, so it is difficult for a “mere viewer” to discount the veracity of the celebrity’s claims based solely on one’s own subjective judgment. In a democracy, however, such judgments constitute popular sovereignty, under which governmental sovereignty is exercised by public officials. Therefore, the citizenry has a responsibility to place its judgment above the larger-than-life asseverations made by candidates or office-holders at mass rallies or on television. The deck, I fear, is stacked against popular sovereignty in favor of the agents, and television has exacerbated the problem even as the medium has enabled voters in an “extended republic” to “see” more of the candidates (or their marketed “brand” image).
To aid the electorate in its subjective judgment made in the privacy of each mind, a few principles may be helpful. First, as stated above, a candidate’s statement made in contradiction to an earlier one and in line with his or her electoral success on election day is subject to a conflict of interest. In other words, the claim that the candidate had been wrong should not be taken at face value if it, unlike the earlier claim, is in line with getting elected.
Mitt Romney’s statement disparaging nearly half of the electorate can reasonably be assumed to be at odds with him winning the election (even making such a statement privately may be a lapse of judgment effectively disqualifying a candidate from any high office in which using good judgment is crucial).  Romney's later claim that his earlier privately-expressed view had been “just completely wrong” can be taken to be in line with his political interest. This pattern, or "switch" in line with political interest, constitutes a conflict of interest because he could reasonably be assumed to be lying in his later statement in order to improve his chances of winning. That the earlier statement had been made in private whereas he announced his “change of heart” publically involves a second principle.
That which is said privately can be taken to have more credibility than that which is stated publically. This is a less direct way of looking at the conflict of interest. A candidate may express his or her authentic beliefs privately because doing so publically would not be in line with winning the election. The switch from private to public after the private statement is leaked is particularly suspect because it is reasonable to assume that the public statement is not genuine, but, rather, is geared to reducing “political damage.”  For the public to assume that the candidate has recognized his or her error and that the public statement is a sort of contrition ignores the conflict of interest. In other words, the sheep mentality is naïve, more a matter of idealistic projection than in what is actually motivating the candidate.
Self-governance, whether of a psyche or in a republic (or union thereof), includes governing one’s own fantasies and projections in order that one can more accurately assess candidates for office and office-holders. Here again is Plato’s notion of justice in the reason-governed psyche being in line with the reason-governed polis (electorate). Being intellectually honest in one’s assessment of even one’s ideologically-favored candidate can be said to be one of the duties of citizenship if self-governance is to apply both to a person and a republic. Letting candidates get away with double-talk is a case of an undisciplined psyche and electorate of a polity not worthy of government by the people.
Whichever way an electorate leans in its collective judgment in a given election, it is my hope that the judgment illustrates the best in popular sovereignty. It is essential, albeit difficult for a large electorate, to hold the agents (even as candidates) accountable to the will of the people, such that the collective will is rendered as clear as possible and that the agents implement it rather than assume (or presume) a superior position to it.


Colleen Nelson, “Romney Backs Off Remarks About the 47%”, The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2012.