What do shifty politicians see when they look in the mirror? Does Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis see someone who’s saving American democracy with his anti-democratic, anti-woke agenda? Does former President Donald Trump see someone who believes he magically declassified government documents by thinking them so, declaring himself an “innocent man” when the 37-count documents case indictment arrived? 

Do they see themselves as the demagogues they in fact are, in playing to the baseless racist fears and prejudices of their white nationalist base? (Speaking of which, consider Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s insistence that white nationalists, who profess white supremacy, aren’t racists.) The only mirrors these demagogues seemingly look in are the eyes of their adoring fans, who reassuringly reflect back their inflated self-images. 

Psychologists delineate two kinds of self-awareness. Private self-awareness entails introspection — looking inward to discern the kind of person one takes oneself to be. Public self-awareness entails looking outward to discern how others view oneself. The two viewpoints need not be aligned: Willful ignorance of matters accessible to conscious awareness but deliberately ignored can operate in either sphere.

With their endorsements of outright lies, we may wonder about the private self-awareness of many Republican leaders. Democratic lawmakers say that GOP colleagues sometimes privately concede what they won’t say publicly: that their views differ from their expedient public pronouncements — about guns, abortion rights, voter fraud. Consider Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s refusal to announce he knew Trump lost the 2020 election, because, as he put it, that would be “political suicide.”

And so, I’m inclined to think that Shakespeare got it wrong in Hamlet, when he had Polonius advise his son Laertes with these words: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Then again, Shakespeare probably wasn’t speaking of demagogic politicians, whose life-guiding “principles” feature deceiving others for power and profit.

In his book “Strangers to Ourselves,” social psychologist Tim Wilson explained how introspection is a poor guide to self-knowledge. He therefore advises “looking outward at our behavior and how others react to us,” as others’ eyes are surer mirrors of our souls. 


Willful ignorance enables us to dismiss feedback from those who challenge a preferred self-image, which can also be bolstered by self-serving rationalization. Trump is a master at this. DeSantis seems a distant second, at best. 

Attending to negative feedback about ourselves takes moral courage. This is sorely lacking on the political right, where extremist leaders rely on demagogic fearmongering to ensure that Americans accept the erroneous belief that minorities endanger their way of life — while the cowardly, enabling quasi-moderates stand silently by.

In their all-too-successful oppressive efforts to restrict voting rights, education, immigration, and healthcare for women and the LGBTQ community, GOP leaders work to keep us in the dark about how their policies — often invoked in the name of freedom — are, in reality, anti-democratic: The ascendance of these GOP leaders depends on the ignorance — willful or not — of their followers. 

Demagogues can’t successfully press their anti-democratic agendas if voters refuse to succumb to their deceptive tactics. To combat their lies, we must first be clear about our own civic values, so as to determine which politicians advance or subvert those values.  

This kind of self-awareness may well benefit from introspection. But it also requires no lesser amount of looking outside ourselves, to glean our values from our actual behavior — as well as from the reactions of others to our words and deeds.

In short, we must be willing to open our knee-jerk views to question. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan showed his true knee-jerk anti-truth colors in working to suppress the speech of academics who study political disinformation and so are accused (ironically) of “colluding with government officials to suppress conservative speech.” This is beyond ludicrous.

Do we have the courage to ask ourselves why we believe the political rhetoric we believe? What evidence, if any, do we find persuasive? What even counts as evidence for or against a claim in the first place? We must ask ourselves these questions, if the truth on which our democracy depends is to survive.

Recall the ancient gadfly Socrates, who was condemned to death for asking too many questions. Although the academics under investigation by Jordan’s House Committee haven’t been forced to drink hemlock (yet), we’re all being served the poisonous lies of vociferous demagogues on the political right. It’s up to us to decide whether to drink the poison.

Barbara S. Held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Comments are not available on this story.