Musings on Bad Faith in Politics

“Hypocrisy” and “cynicism” are two adjectives used to describe actions of Republicans, particularly when they supported Trump. I tend to think those two words are inadequate. I like bad faith better, but the meaning seems a little vague to me. In this thread, I want to flesh out the meaning and think about term, versus alternatives, when discussing the modern day GOP and their leader.

7 thoughts on “Musings on Bad Faith in Politics

  1. To start off, I’m going to attempt to define “good faith,” which may be a bit easier for some reason. Off the top of my head, good faith, or acting in good faith, entails behaving in a reasonable and genuine way to achieve legitimate goals. “Reasonable” involves adherence to broadly accepted norms and standards relating to fairness, logic, decency, morality, and honesty. “Legitimate goals” for a politician would be something that truly benefited one’s constituents and/or country or democracy as a whole.

    If this is correct, than “bad faith” entail behaving in an unreasonable, disingenuous way to achieve illegitimate goals. Here, unreasonable would be actions that fall outside widely accepted norms and standards relating to fairness, logic, decency, morality, and honesty. And one would often be doing this knowingly, which pretending to be acting in good faith. “Illegitimate” goals would be something like obtaining power and wealth for one’s self or one’s party at the expense of one’s constituents or the country as a whole.

    I’m not sure if these definitions are accurate. If anyone has any corrections or comments, please share them.

    Here’s another question I wanted to explore: Is there a difference between the behavior of an autocrat and a politician, in a liberal democracy, acting in bad faith?

    1. I don’t like the definition because it’s too vague and abstract. Bad faith can be framed in much more practical, real-world terms.

      First, bad faith exists primarily (if not solely) in the realm of interaction. Bad faith is a violation of the terms of the interaction, where people are not participating in the agreed-on terms of the interaction. You could call this “norms,” but norms are relative, so I don’t like the word here.

      An example I’ve thought a lot about is in the game Risk, where 3 to 6 players engage in simulated war in order to conquer the world. When it’s played as intended, with each participant trying to win the game fairly according to the rules, it’s one of the best games ever invented.

      But sometimes people play a different way. Sometimes one player simply wants to cause another player to lose, with little regard for personal gains within the game. This is not specifically forbidden in the rulebook, but you can see how it totally ruins the game for the targeted player. If the goal is to take over the globe, and one player isn’t playing to do so, the dynamics are thrown off, someone has less fun, and actually most of the others have less fun. It’s like those fantasy football players who draft teams and then don’t actually play. The one player playing in bad faith ruins the point of the competition.

      The job of a legislator is to create laws, and the way our legislatures are set up forces negotiation. So we have two concepts of interaction here. First, the interaction involved in formulating, articulating, and passing laws. Second, when there is no agreement, the interaction of negotiation toward accomplishing the first interaction.

      The rules of negotiation are give and take toward an agreement. If one side is using negotiation specifically NOT to reach an agreement, this side is not negotiating in good faith and therefore not legislating in good faith.

      A seemingly new type of bad faith just in the first interaction (that is, legislation absent negotiation) is the representative who goes to Capitol Hill not to legislate, but specifically to denigrate the opposing party and to boost his or her profile for the purposes of being reelected. A certain rookie Congressperson has been stripped of her roles on committees, so all she really does is vote, but it doesn’t matter to her, because she’s really just there to cause trouble and to boost her profile as a troublemaker. She’s raised a crapton of campaign money in the process and it’s not even been a year of this.

      I’m not sure what you’re asking in your last question. Can you be clearer? Are you asking if there’s a difference between the way an autocrat acts in bad faith and the way a politician acts in bad faith? Going on my definition, it would depend on the specific interactions we’re talking about. A city prosecutor acting in bad faith looks pretty different from a national autocrat acting in bad faith.

      1. Since a formal interaction is something of a contract, I think I could accept a violation of the terms (and spirit) of a contract as also acting in bad faith, as when a public employee abuses his or her access to something. The public can rightfully feel the employee is doing his or her job in bad faith if it’s being done in a manner violating the terms or spirit of the employment. Like, it might not specifically be against the terms of employment to use a county vehicle to haul personal stuff home from Costco, but that’s not the intended use of the vehicle.

  2. I’m not really satisfied with my definition, either, but bear with me. It’s a work in progress; and I appreciate your input, as it’s helping me to think about this topic.

    The job of a legislator is to create laws, and the way our legislatures are set up forces negotiation. So we have two concepts of interaction here. First, the interaction involved in formulating, articulating, and passing laws. Second, when there is no agreement, the interaction of negotiation toward accomplishing the first interaction.

    The distinction between the first and second types of interaction is unclear to me. Isn’t the second a part of the first? For example, passing laws almost always involves negotiation. What distinguishes the two in your mind?

    The rules of negotiation are give and take toward an agreement. If one side is using negotiation specifically NOT to reach an agreement, this side is not negotiating in good faith and therefore not legislating in good faith.

    Or, if one side really doesn’t care about reaching an agreement, or actually passing legislation that seriously addresses a real issue–that would also be operating in bad faith as well. (And this seems to apply to the politician you referred to in your post.)

    This touches on the “legitimate goals” part of my definition, although I failed to capture something important—namely, that the goals are something assumed and taken for granted by politicians and the public —-largely because they’re obvious and beyond dispute. No one can legitimately claim to not know these are the goals. To not attempt to achieve these goals, or to violate them in some way egregious way is one way to operate in bad faith.

    But I think the other part of bad faith has to do with violating norms and standards involving honesty, logic, decency, fairness, reasonableness when interacting or speaking. For example, if a politicians lies and fabricates, in ways that are baseless and easily disprovable, in negotiations or arguing for their position, the politician is operating in bad faith. If a politicians says something that most reasonable people know to be untrue or disingenuous then that constitutes bad faith.

    Something that seems missing: The person acting in bad faith knows or should know that they are being unreasonable or behaving in an appropriate manner, but they act as if they genuinely have good intentions….Intentions–that’s a big part of this. A bad faith actor’s intentions are not good–i.e., not legitimate or reasonable–but they pretend as if they are. What do you think?

  3. The distinction between the first and second types of interaction is unclear to me. Isn’t the second a part of the first? For example, passing laws almost always involves negotiation. What distinguishes the two in your mind?

    If you’d rather not differentiate these I’m fine with that. Politics is complicated, and I kind of like to see where in a process the snags are. It probably betrays a TON of my feelings about recent issues I have with the Republican legislators’ approaches.

    Negotiating is a huge part of creating laws but it’s not the only part. The actual vote, for example, can be done in bad faith and involves no negotiation. If you’re voting simply so the incumbent president doesn’t get his agenda through, rather than because you think it’s good or bad for your constituents, you’re not legislating in good faith whether or not you negotiated to get to this position.

    But again, if you want to put them together it’s fine.

    No one can legitimately claim to not know these are the goals. To not attempt to achieve these goals, or to violate them in some
    way egregious way is one way to operate in bad faith.

    I’ll agree with this, although there are some slimy ways to reframe a goal so that in the big picture your approach to it satisfies some larger goal. However, if you’re abusing responsibility A in order to further goal B, it’s absolutely a bad faith move.

    But I think the other part of bad faith has to do with violating norms and standards involving honesty, logic, decency, fairness, reasonableness when interacting or speaking. For example, if a politicians lies and fabricates, in ways that are baseless and easily disprovable, in negotiations or arguing for their position, the politician is operating in bad faith. If a politicians says something that most reasonable people know to be untrue or disingenuous then that constitutes bad faith.

    I can’t exactly argue against this, but I’m wondering if you’re conflating dirty play with bad faith, and I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about the norms thing and there’s at least one situation where the norm is a form of dishonesty but still part of good faith negotiations.

    In a lot of high-stakes negotiation, the parties seldom lay all their cards on the table in early stages. The norm is to have a certain amount of wiggle room — items you’re willing to concede but which you will assert you must have. Bluffing is dishonest as well, but bluffing is a part of negotiation — a norm — considered acceptable because each side has a responsibility to at least try and get the wishes as well as the needs, even if it knows it will eventually settle for only the needs.

    Something that seems missing: The person acting in bad faith knows or should know that they are being unreasonable or behaving in an appropriate manner, but they act as if they genuinely have good intentions….Intentions–that’s a big part of this. A bad faith actor’s intentions are not good–i.e., not legitimate or reasonable–but they pretend as if they are. What do you think?

    Part of my original breakdown is, “If one side is using negotiation specifically NOT to reach an agreement, this side is not negotiating in good faith…” I would consider your addition part of this articulation.

  4. I can’t exactly argue against this, but I’m wondering if you’re conflating dirty play with bad faith, and I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing.

    How do you distinguish the two? A dirty trick refers to a underhanded action. Bad faith seems to refer to the approach someone has when working with another person.

    On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about the norms thing and there’s at least one situation where the norm is a form of dishonesty but still part of good faith negotiations.

    In a lot of high-stakes negotiation, the parties seldom lay all their cards on the table in early stages. The norm is to have a certain amount of wiggle room — items you’re willing to concede but which you will assert you must have. Bluffing is dishonest as well, but bluffing is a part of negotiation — a norm — considered acceptable because each side has a responsibility to at least try and get the wishes as well as the needs, even if it knows it will eventually settle for only the needs.

    In certain contexts, individuals bluff , spin, be less than candid, and even lie and not be guilty of bad faith. I think that’s because there is a consensus on when those behaviors are acceptable or at least understandable. Operating in bad faith violates the consensus on what is reasonable or appropriate.

    Part of my original breakdown is, “If one side is using negotiation specifically NOT to reach an agreement, this side is not negotiating in good faith…” I would consider your addition part of this articulation.

    I agree, but I think the part about the guilty party knowing better should be emphasized.

    Something else: There are degrees of bad faith. The bad faith of Trump and the Republicans are excessive–to the degree that the term seems inadequate.

  5. This WaPo article about Fox New reporter Steve Doocy’s run-ins with White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, got me thinking about this thread.

    I think we touched on this, but egregious deviation from the purpose of the interaction or role of one or more of the participants is often a component of bad faith. For example, the article cites examples of Doocy asking “gotcha questions”–questions asked to make the administration look bad. That is not the role of a journalist. The role journalist is inform the public. The WH press secretary is suppose to provide information so that they can do this, also in good faith. (If she knowingly lied in a egregious manner, she would not be acting in good faith. Or let’s say she engaged in demagoguery–promoting baseless claims to stoke fear and resentment in the president’s supporters–primarily for political reasons. That likely would constitute acting in bad faith as well.)

    To be fair, journalists will ask gotcha questions ostensibly because it will attract attention and entice people to consume journalism. On level this is understandable and reasonable, even if it’s outside and maybe harmful to main purpose of journalism. (Journalists need a revenue stream, and they’re especially struggling to find a sustainable one now.)

    But if Doocy does this regularly–and more importantly–does so in a way that makes him more like a part of the Republican party–than that is an even more egregious violation of his role as a journalist. Journalists should act as wings of a political party.

    Additionally, if a key motive is to increase antagonism and polarization–dividing the country–in order to make profits, that also seems like an egregious failure to fulfill the role of journalists.

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