Truth-telling and representational democracy

All democratically elected presidents lie to the public now and then, some more frequently than others. But all autocratic leaders lie to the public all the time and every time, believing that telling the truth never benefits them. 

Our Founding Fathers had a sense that truth and democracy were irrevocably intertwined, that embracing honesty and truthful communications to the public was at the heart of what they referred to as republicanism. 

One can read in the early works of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington and a dozen less-well-known figures that their searches for truth, and their willingness to tell the truth even when not doing so might be more expedient, were at the core of who they were and what kind of society they wished to live in. 

Jefferson, in his majestic preamble to the Declaration of Independence, establishes what we would call today a climate for truth-telling by announcing that “a decent respect for the concerns of mankind” demands an honest statement of why Americans sought to “sever the bonds” connecting the 13 Colonies to Great Britain. 

The Declaration’s summary of the reasons begins with “truths” that are “self-evident” but that nonetheless need to be stated and avowed. The body of the document goes on to detail, quite harshly ­— as though Americans were collectively speaking truth to power — the many instances of poor treatment of colonists by George III, his ministers, and Parliament. 

In rejecting authoritarianism, patriarchal authority and the imperative for the Colonies to be eternally subservient to Great Britain’s needs, Americans were rejecting the lies and continual rationalizing that went with those prior forms of attachment. 

How much truth was enough, and how much was too much, was the next question tackled. The matter was at stake in the debate over Pennsylvania’s state constitution, written just after the Declaration. 

It called for a unicameral legislature — that is, no upper house — for it to be elected annually, and for legislative acts to be discussed publicly for an entire year and then have to be re-ratified by a new legislature before taking effect. Pennsylvania’s 1776 constitution was the most radically democratic document ever produced in America. 

Its framers intended it as such, and that the periods of public discussion would promote truth-telling. But a delegate to another state’s drafting convention sniffed, of it.

“The mob [is] made a second branch of the legislature. Laws [are] subjected to … a washing in ordure by way of purification. Taverns and dram shops are the councils to which the laws are referred for approbation before they possess a binding influence.” 

The Pennsylvania constitution remained in force for almost four years, during which the actions taken under it caused all sorts of chaos — not because too much truth was exposed, but because it became clear that the representatives’ needs to cater to the moment’s public opinion in order to gain re-election overrode the long-term considerations important to nation-building. 

That consideration of the long-term is what pushed the men whose ideas constructed the federal Constitution — Madison, Hamilton, and jurist James Wilson — to insist on having a representational rather than a complete democracy, and a bicameral legislature whose upper house was not subject to election too often, and an embedding into the governmental structure of not only the basic principle of balance of power but also the structural tools to achieve that balance. 

The executive, legislative, and judicial branches were each given the authority to act as a curb on the others’ potential excesses. Unwritten but nonetheless palpable was the idea that to obtain public approval for their actions, especially when one branch alters or halts the actions of another, each branch must engage in truth-telling to the public to identify what it is they disapprove of in the other branch’s actions. 

In authoritarian governments, there is deliberately no balance among the branches. Though there may be a legislative or judicial entity in addition to an executive one, the only real authority is that of the executive. 

I’ll bet that if some enterprising scholar did a study of those times in a long-functioning democracy’s history when the legislative and/or the judiciary ceased being effective checks on the executive, they’d find that at those moments there was a whole lot less truth-telling going on. 

When checks and balances are set aside — during wars, worldwide depressions, and other national emergencies — we are willing to let our political representatives get away with it, but are glad when the period of emergency stops and they resume their rightful obligations to check and balance one another and be truthful with us. 

But what about when the set-aside occurs in peacetime? In prosperity? 


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.