Can’t live with them, can’t live without them
Books | The need for virtuous politicians to rise to the call of public service
by Bruce K. Chapman
Posted 12/14/19, 09:39 am
When frustrated by election results, it’s useful to remember why it’s hard to live with politicians but even harder to live without them. Bruce K. Chapman’s Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others offers warm wit seasoned with some sharp-edged anecdotes. He reminds us that “a good political life, in the spirit of the Constitution, aims at a ‘more perfect union,’ not a perfect one.” Below, we offer more, courtesy of Discovery Institute.
Politicians made WORLD’s short list for 2018 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category. —Marvin Olasky
An invitation to politics
This book began as a qualified defense of politicians. Their claims can never be unqualified. Surely the politician should stand humbly before those quieter citizens who move society forward in ways a lawgiver or law-executor cannot, such as the research scientist, entrepreneur, inventor, business manager, artist, and all the private persons whose service is provided face-to-face, one-on-one: parent, pastor, physician, teacher, counselor, nurse, caretaker, friend. The steady accomplishments of such people often out-shine those of public officials. Civilization has progressed over the centuries, but if you only knew political and military history you would be surprised to find that this progress was possible at all. You might be tempted to suppose that improvements happen despite the politicians.
Yet politics, when it builds upon human nature and does not aspire to supplant it, creates the preconditions for progress. Without politicians, however fumbling and stumbling, the world could not have stood up to the totalitarian anti-politicians of the past hundred years. Even if we assume that fascism and communism are dead or dying (and they do have a way of reviving), the evil seed within human nature can always mutate and grow anew.
In this century, the advanced nations will have to meet the desire of the other four-fifths of the planet for the good results that our political and economic systems—and some would say our faith and self-discipline—have yielded us. We moderns who tolerate less and less risk to our comfortable lives must find ways to help those in more vulnerable lands to subdue the lawless option of violence, and we must find ways to do the same within our own divided societies. In this we are challenged to preserve the personal liberty, properly understood, that gives human beings choices in all areas of life. It is a high calling.
Our technical capabilities grow fast, but they cannot keep pace with our personal wants, which we increasingly define as “needs.” We would help the young, the ill, the abandoned, and the prisoner, but we are not sure how to do it, or how, at the same time, to maintain financial solvency for the nation and the ability of ordinary, taxpaying people to remain strong and independent. When society’s problems, from a surfeit of pleasure-seeking to a dearth of ambition, emerge in our own families, most of us still know how to find a balance of hard-headed realism and understanding love in developing answers. Even then we are strained. But when the problems are in the polity, the balance usually must be struck by politicians.
It is a role of politicians, then, to harmonize the passions and interests of humanity with the higher standards and goals of civilization. Politics looks to success, but ultimately must aim for virtue. Success without virtue, ironically, cannot persist. The human soul will not stand for it.
But virtue for the good politician is a mature quality that has been tested, often finding the right way through pain, as Aristotle said and as George Washington learned. It knows defeat as well as victory and it knows that its enemy is boredom as much as it is misdirected idealism.
A good political life, in the spirit of the Constitution, aims at a “more perfect union,” not a perfect one. Those who conceive of politics as a destination instead of a journey always want to remove the imperfections of passion, interest, and (naturally) disagreement that the politician knows are integral to the representative democracy, and indeed, all democracy. The anomalous project of the perfectionists is like that of the mystic medieval Jews of Prague, in the legend, who so yearned for a protector from persecution that, employing magical incantations, they created something like a man, the Golem. But in their desperate pride they thereby usurped the role of God, and their contorted monster brought disaster upon them.
The perfectionists also remind us of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, confronted with Christ come again. Having developed only worldly wisdom, the Grand Inquisitor rejects Jesus, contending that a Church run by skilled skeptics knows best what is good for humankind.
The good politician, in contrast, does not seek to replace God with a perfect man, nor to supplant a heavenly after-life with Heaven-on-Earth. Instead, he is ever balancing man’s noble aims with his human nature, seeking chiefly amelioration. The seriousness of his limited role, however grandiose the rhetoric, is his genuine glory.
But the good politician in our society must also confront the danger of a selfish individualism, which, far from looking to perfection, sees no relevance to public life at all. Tocqueville, who diagnosed this disease, contrasted it with mere “egoism … a passionate and exaggerated love of self which leads a man to think of all things in terms of himself and to prefer himself to all.”1 Individualism (what we might call a privatized life), “is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” But, as Tocqueville goes on to explain: “Individualism (in this definition) at first only dams the spring of public virtues, but in the long run it attacks all the others too and finally merges in egoism. Egoism is a vice as old as the world. … Individualism is of democratic origin and threatens to grow as conditions get more equa1.”2
Abraham Lincoln, reflecting upon the breakdown of order and respect for law in the 1830s that anticipated the Civil War, pondered the long-term threat to America’s political institutions. The danger did not come from abroad, he said in his famous Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Given the size, strength and isolation of the United States, no future Napoleon Bonaparte could, “by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a thousand years.” Instead, any future danger “must spring up amongst us. … [W]e must be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”3
Today, as then, there is little danger to our political institutions from without, but still cause for worry within. Even the danger of imposing on our democracy supposedly superior international norms established, say, through the United Nations—a very bad idea, since it assumes that the combined ideals of Bangladesh, Sudan, and Belgium are somehow more enlightened than ours—only would occur because of domestic political mischief here.
Every year the combination of perfectionist middlemen, in the name of purifying politics, bleeds a bit more freedom from the good politicians as well as the bad. Politics does not improve under this treatment, so the middlemen insist on bleeding a bit more. Disgusted by all of it, the privatized American does not rise to the call of public service, but rather tries to move out of sight—or rushes to endorse the latest political savior.
Action to rescue representative democracy has to include more individuals deciding to take a personal political role that is larger than mere voting. Recruits are needed among the politically mature, who see through the generated image of vice to the heart of virtue in representative democracy. They will be people who realize that while other civic activities may be free of the temptations of politics, and of the bad odor, politics is not thereby less virtuous. Rather, it is more difficult and more consequential. The games of politics are for real stakes. We all share these stakes. If the people who make the laws are not free to practice virtue, soon none of us will be able to do so. Free and private citizens cannot long ignore public duty.
The call to political service rarely comes to an individual from outside, yet personal ambition alone or the prospects of fame may not be enough to motivate. Civic conscience, a sense of responsibility, is needed. And sometimes that sense does, indeed, have to be prodded. Responding to a letter from a Benjamin Vaughan, who requested advice on his conduct and writings, Benjamin Franklin gently chided, “As to your conduct, I know of nothing that looks like a fault, except your declining to act in any public station, although you are certainly qualified to do much public good in many you must have had it in your power to occupy.”4
To quicken civic conscience, President Lyndon Johnson behaved in a manner just the opposite of Franklin, bullying as well as beguiling people to take on public duties. As the tape recordings made of Johnson’s telephone conversations after the John F. Kennedy assassination (released by the Johnson Library) made clear, Johnson did not so much invite or even ask Chief Justice Earl Warren and Georgia Senator Richard Russell to join the commission established to investigate the assassination as order them to join, swearing, threatening, cajoling all the way. It wasn’t just Lyndon Johnson making the demand, he thundered, it was the country.
To young citizens today, as well as to older ones who already have played some different part in community life, no one can seriously make any demand, but one can make a solemn request: to answer the call to public service. You are not asked to do more than you are able, or sooner than you are able. But at some time in your life you can render significant political service.
You might, if young, apprentice yourself to a current office-holder or candidate. By volunteering in a political party or campaign you will find yourself immediately welcome; and because you are giving support—“paying your dues”—rather than asking for favors, you are likely to be sincerely accepted and trusted.
In time, you might be promoted for appointive or elective office. If not, you might well have to put your own name forward. Politics is not a government or corporate hierarchy. As Lincoln and others advised, if you want to lead, don’t wait to be asked; round up your friends.
There is, however, no guarantee of achievement, let alone popular praise. Most politicians are lucky to muddle through their responsibilities without endangering their personal reputations or going into debt. Many fail to get even the first chance to distinguish themselves. Chance, indeed, has a lot to do with distinction. Without World War II, history never would have heard of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But even politicians who fail, or who serve without particular excellence, do indeed serve. We need the also-ran, the nobly defeated, the honest plodder, and the right-person-at-the-wrong-time. They give us choices. Who knows when we will need a great war leader, or a peace leader to replace a great war leader? Today we most require a visionary in office; tomorrow we may require a manager. To make our decisions count, we must hope that the types of politician we want are available when we want them. The old parties, with their political clubs and partisan press, understood this better and protected their own defeated champions.
Of course, the contributions of some politicians are appreciated adequately in their time, while the contributions of others will be exaggerated. Knowing this, the fear of failure—public failure—dulls the ambition of many prospective politicians and even burdens certain outstanding veterans, just as stage fright before a performance may continue throughout a long career of even the most accomplished actors.
Among our finest politicians who did not succumb to their fear of failure we find, nonetheless, those who believed, wrongly, that they did fail. General Sam Houston, an original among America’s patriots, was governor of Tennessee and then, against formidable odds, led the army that won independence for Texas. Soon after, he brought that enormous state into the Union. He was elected twice as governor and twice as US Senator. But, having been forced from office at the outbreak of the Civil War because he would not swear allegiance to the Confederacy, he died in 1863 thinking his life’s work destroyed. About that, he was surely wrong.
Winston Churchill perhaps did more than anyone to defeat Hitler. He prepared the West to resist communism and burnished for all history the ideals of valor and vision in politics—through speeches, writing, and action. Nonetheless, he became depressed in his later years because he had been unable, among other things, to preserve the British Empire.
So, if great politicians sometimes cannot always evaluate fairly their own contributions, or recognize fully (as in Churchill’s case) their true mission, or if their contemporaries should neglect to keep an accurate account, the properly motivated prospective politician is best advised to set upon his or her course expecting at least no better. Let him cultivate a “fame” so high, so elevated in the classic understanding, that it can be considered virtuous. Truly, virtue will be its own reward.
Finally, most good politicians know that the Latin expression, “Vox populi, vox Dei,” is wrong. The voice of the people is not the voice of God. As the politicians who founded America proclaimed, above politics—the master science that orders the others—is the Lawgiver who orders the universe. In the end, the only vote that matters is the Lord’s.
From Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others by Bruce K. Chapman. Published by Discovery Institute. Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
1. Tocqueville, op. cit., 506.
2. Ibid., pp. 506–507. Tocqueville’s concern about individualism reminds us of the Biedermeier culture of Central Europe around the same time, in which people escaped a tightly confined public life to find all meaning in the bosom of family and personal work. This should not be confused—though some connection can be drawn—with the spirit of individualism that reflects constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights. One is an escape from public responsibility, the other, inter alia, is a protection against state intrusion into private life.
3. Abraham Lincoln, “Address to Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (January 27, 1838), in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), pp. 28–29.
4. Benjamin Franklin, letter to Benjamin Vaughan, November 2, 1789, in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin [and selected other writings] (New York: Books, Inc., n.d.), p. 239.
Bruce K. Chapman
Bruce is the founder and current chairman of the board of the Discovery Institute.