When running for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama misled the voters about his true position on the question of same-sex marriage. This is not an accusation made by one of the president’s political enemies, but an admission made by one of his closest political advisors: David Axelrod. According to Time magazine, Axelrod’s new book about his career in politics reveals that candidate Obama really believed in same-sex marriage, but he publicly said that he opposed it because he feared the electoral consequences of his real convictions.
In response to the mini-burst of commentary and indignation that this news has provoked, Axelrod has complained—not very convincingly—that his story has been distorted. In an interview on the question, he derides criticism of the president’s dishonesty as “gotcha” politics, emphasizing that he never said that Obama had “lied” about his position on same-sex marriage. While it is true that Axelrod did not use the word “lie,” nothing in the interview modifies his original claim that as a candidate Obama—at Axelrod’s own urging—put before the voters a position on a public question different from the one he actually held, and that he did this because he thought it would increase his chances of winning the presidency.
Cynics will dismiss this story as commonplace: politicians mislead voters all the time, they will say. This is a deadly error. In this question, it’s not just the issues in a given election that are at stake. It’s the nation’s commitment to representative self-government—a commitment that is nothing but a sham if candidates for office are not duty-bound to tell the truth when soliciting the public’s votes.
Government by Consent
One of America’s fundamental political principles is the doctrine of government by consent. The founders intended to establish, and every generation of Americans since has sought to preserve, a form of government in which the people give the basic direction to public policy by electing representatives to make laws and administer the government for them. There can be no genuine consent, however, and hence no meaningful self-government, when politicians mislead the voters.
We often think of despotism as operating by force, and so it often does. Force simply overpowers the governed and therefore negates the possibility of consent. Falsehood, however, is another, and often an equally effective, tool of despotism. It, too, negates the possibility of real consent.
The problem becomes clear if we put politics aside for a moment and reflect on simple forms of interaction between private individuals. Under the law, force or the threat of force voids a contract. Everybody knows that the famous “offer he couldn’t refuse” made by Don Corleone in The Godfather cannot be the basis of a morally or legally valid agreement. If you put a gun to a man’s head and tell him that “either his brains or his signature are going on that contract,” he will probably choose the latter option. Nevertheless, the law and every decent person will acknowledge that there is no morally or legally binding contract in such a case, because the man’s free consent is utterly lacking.
Such a “contract” would be equally worthless if a man were induced to sign it not by the threat of force but instead by misleading him about its contents. If you spend an hour drawing up a contract with a man and then substitute another while he is not looking, you might succeed in getting him to sign something of which he has no knowledge. Yet here as before, there was no free consent and hence no real agreement in this case, because the victim was misled.
What is true in private between individuals holds as well in public between candidates for office and the voters. Here, no formal contracts are signed. Still, something morally analogous is going on, and must go on if self-government is to be more than a delusion.
When Politicians Lie, They Undermine Self-Government
In a contract, one person makes solemn representations about what he is going to do if he can get the other party to sign. There can be no real consent if one of the parties knowingly misrepresents his intentions. Similarly, candidates for political office make public claims about who they are and what they will do if they should succeed in winning public office. Their campaign claims function as a kind of informal contract with the public, one that they try to induce citizens to “sign” by casting their votes. If this political “contract” is fraudulent, if the candidate wins votes by misrepresenting his positions and intentions, then there is no free consent and self-government is nothing but a fiction. The effect is as undemocratic—as despotic, in fact—as it would be if a candidate threatened to shoot those who did not vote for him.
Accordingly, candidates for public office who act as President Obama acted here, and commentators who defend them, act as if they really don’t believe in the right of self-government.
One defense of the president holds that his dishonesty was mostly innocent, because he did not mislead the voters on a matter of public policy over which the president has the final say. On this view, it would certainly be wrong for a presidential candidate to deceive voters about, say, how he would conduct foreign policy, or whether he would sign a certain bill into law. Here, however, Obama misled voters about his position on same-sex marriage, an issue that will be decided in the end not by him but by the Supreme Court. Therefore, his dishonesty in this case was only about a matter of personal opinion and is therefore not something to get very exercised about.
This is not an adequate defense. First, in our democracy, voters have a right to select a candidate who not only will perform the actions that they approve, but also one who shares their principles. This right is, again, necessary to genuine self-government. No campaign can cover all the issues that might arise during the term of office a president will serve. Voters therefore reasonably want to know that a presidential candidate shares their deepest moral convictions, so they can be assured that he will approach these future issues in a way they would approve.
Put another way, voters have a right to true information not only about a presidential candidate’s public policy positions, but also about his character and worldview—again, because such information is necessary to their ability to govern themselves. If a candidate holds a personal opinion that he thinks is irrelevant to the office he seeks, he is certainly free to tell the public that it is none of their business. He has no right, however, to mislead them about his opinion. If he does that, as Obama did, he is making genuine, informed consent impossible.
The President Has Substantial Influence on the Future of Marriage
In the second place, it is not true that same-sex marriage is a public policy question over which the president has no control. Recent comments by Justice Ruth Ginsburg make it clear that her judgment on the question will be influenced by whether the American public is “ready” for same-sex marriage. It is likely that she is not the only justice permitting this kind of consideration to influence her thinking, and even she were, her vote will likely be decisive to the outcome of the question.
The president’s own political calculations in 2008 told him that if he ran a pro-same-sex marriage campaign, he was in danger of losing. Had he run in this way and lost, it would have been a clear signal to the Court that the American public is not “ready” for same-sex marriage. They might have followed that signal by holding off on creating such a right. Obama, however, deprived the national electorate of its ability to make itself clear on this question in 2008 by misleading them about his position.
More important, the Supreme Court’s ruling on this question will depend on its composition, which in turn depends on who controls the presidency. During his first term in office, President Obama was able to nominate two justices to the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. If the Court declares a right to same-sex marriage, it will almost certainly do so by a vote of 5-4. Thus, every vote is crucial to the outcome of this question.
If the president had been true to his declarations in 2008 that he believed marriage is and should be a union between a man and a woman, he would have taken care not to nominate justices with a judicial philosophy that would lead them to discover an unwritten constitutional right to same-sex marriage. This he did not do.
In this light, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he knowingly deceived American voters in relation to a public policy question over which he had substantial influence. He assured the voters that he believed marriage to be a union between a man and a woman, while planning to nominate justices who would declare that the government has no right to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Respect for traditional standards of moral conduct—such as honesty and truth-telling—has decreased considerably over the last fifty years. Those who approve of this change tend to present it as a move in the direction of greater sophistication. In our complex world, they suggest, we can’t always be guided by the simple moral maxims of the past. They have lost sight of the fact that the greatest goods we cherish, such as the right of self-government, depend in the end on the most elementary moral rules, like the obligation to tell the truth. They believe that this moral sophistication is a kind of progress, but they should see instead that nothing can be progress that ends up undermining the fundamental principles of our whole way of life.