Thursday, January 21, 2016

Who Should Be in Politics, part 2

In my last, I said that advocating for a particular person or purpose on grounds which are irrelevant or, worse still, false, is one of the more damaging mistakes those engaged in political discourse can make.  Specifically, I suggested that attempts to portray Trump as unconservative due to his belief in outsiders’ ability to govern involve a mistaken understanding of conservatism.

But there is a deeper problem lurking in the definition of conservatism presented by my honorable opponent, the pundit.  He observes that

Conservatism regards politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming. Skill and success depend on personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation. Effective statesmen absorb and act on the embedded knowledge and practices of the people they represent, in the nation they belong to, and in the daily flux of its political system. Political experience is specific to the moment and the place …

There is considerable appeal in the idea of “politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming”; it conjures up images of honest, hard-working, homespun types skilled at their handiwork.  And, appealing imagery aside, it is true that in general, as their name suggests, conservatives appreciate “personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation”; true, also, that conservatives expect or at least wish for a kind of cultural milieu where they can be unified to the people around them: where a politician can be truly a man of the people, one who shares their interests and tendencies, and not merely someone who represents them accidentally.

But in our country’s current state, do we really wish for a politician who represents the interests and tendencies of the average American?  If so, I doubt that Trump is very far off.  That’s not intended as a snark or a slam against either Trump or Americans; it is a simple statement of fact.

But if one does (as I do) wish for a more thoughtful political world, and if one is also conservative, it would seem that conservatives in politics really do have to—temporarily at least—abandon the fiction that they are exactly like those they represent.  They are in fact probably better able to understand the nuances of the law and of political negotiation.

Many conservatives, of course, have already realized this.  But in deciding that they know politics better than their constituents, they have also decided (1) that this makes them morally superior, and (2) that this absolves them from any need to really explain what they are doing the hoi poloi.

In fact, the realization that he knows more than ordinary people ought to profoundly disconcert a politician; and he ought to take it gnostically, as a sign of his own greatness, but humbly, as a sign that he is called to serve people not just by legislating, but also precisely by bridging the gap between himself and them.  He should, in other words, be more than an advocate: he should be a teacher.  He should be Atticus Finch with Boo Radley, not Atticus Finch with Tom Robinson.  Rrather than fishing for his constituents he should teach them how to fish—how to think—for themselves.

The measure of the good a politician can do for his country is not how much he can get done while in office, but how much his people will be able to do once he is out of it.

But all of this, of course, required humility, which is antithetical to fallen human nature in the first place, and especially difficult to cultivate when one’s profession involves being in front of or in charge of anybody.

Says the teacher.

But the fundamental lack of humility is not the only problem lurking in the claim that “Conservatism regards politics as a craft.”  There is a factual issue with the claims as well.  The metaphor, taken strictly, implies that outsiders do not belong in politics: that “[e]ffective statesmen” should be men of political experience, even of familial experience: that we should in fact have a political class (Quincys, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons) who will, through their “personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation,” guide us safely through the troubled waters of whatever it is that we are sailing perpetually through.

But this vision is antithetical to the vision my honorable opponent the pundit recognizes in his final lines, when he says that “the conservative idea of politics” is “to always strive towards the unattainable ideal of making [politics] redundant.”  That is a fine idea, and one perfectly in line with my claim that conservatives should teach the electorate mental fishery.  It is also congruent with the idea often attributed to the American founders that statesmen should be citizens first and statesmen second: that they should, if at all possible, serve temporarily and then get the thunder out of the Capitol.

Fish and guests, my grandfather says, start to stink after three days.
And we give politicians three years?

The ideal politician, according to every conservative from de Tocqueville down to my honorable opponent, himself, is one who—though seeing politics as a craft—does not see political experience as being critical to that craft.

Which is why it is ridiculous, for my honorable opponent at least, to argue that Trump cannot be conservative because he thinks, or purports to think, that political experience is worse than useless.  That is, by many conservatives own admission—and apparently by popular conservative consent—a very conservative position to take.

Attacking the man with arguments as misleading as his own is to become guilt of the very thing for which he could actually be criticized: for failing to teach us local yokels fishing.

No comments:

Post a Comment