How Many Fools?

at 12:35 AM
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Politicians earn their discredited reputation because of all professions, theirs is the one in which self-dealing is most often rationalized as serving the greater good. Many politicians fool us when they can get away with it, claiming they're doing what's right for us when they're really doing what's right for them.

Lincoln suggested that there were limits on what they can get away with when he said, "you can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

It's time to ask some follow-up questions about Lincoln's comforting assertion.

First, was it a statement of hope or fact?

Second, if it was fact during Lincoln's time, is it still now? Fooling people has come a long way since then, and while we have grown more skeptical there's reason to believe we just can't keep up.


Hoax springs eternal. A new technique for manipulating people, once discovered, gets used and reused, metastasizing forever. In contrast, a sucker is born every minute. We are all born naïve, fresh fodder for the manipulator's accumulation of perennial techniques.

Third, to fool anyone all of the time requires an ability to generate wall to wall rationalizations, a plausible "because" for every strictly self-serving cause. Is that really possible?

These days there are a great many self-serving politicians who absolutely always have a rationale. They never admit that they have ever been wrong about anything other than being too soft on their opponents.  Lincoln's "some of the people" who can be fooled all of the time are largely fooled by the all-of-the-time relentlessness of these politicians' self-rationalizations.

And a fourth and final question: How many is this "some of the people" who can be fooled all the time? Because if it's a majority, we're in for difficult times.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.