Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The limits of political cynicism

The following blog entry, from Andrew Spring, on so-called political cynics deserves careful reading. The year 2011 should be hard on these operators. However, we shouldn’t get too squeamish about their feelings.

 “In A Plain Blog About Politics, Bernstein embraces the political process in all its ugly, necessary glory: the posturing, the pandering, the packaging, the parliamentary maneuvering, the horse-trading, the struggle for survival and the ambition that drives it. His approach can alternately seem extremely cynical, in that it assumes that politicians are motivated almost entirely by the drive to amass and keep power, and the opposite of cynical, since it embraces the process and its outcomes so cheerfully . . .
 “Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.
—Andrew Spring, “Embracing the process: Jonathan Bernstein’s joyous cynicism,” Xpostfactiod, December 26, 2010
The professional optimism of professional political operators—their belief that good politics leads inevitably to good policies—is easily refuted historically. In many cases, the intended solution only makes matters worse—for instance, subsidizing the price of commodities in short supply.
It’s the cynic’s hard-faced scorn for idealists and for any principle that would disrupt their political calculators that should be seen for what it is—just an act of faith that allows confused and nervous people to sleep at night. It lets them say what sounds safe and call that enough. It allows advisors with little actual power to call their bosses amateurs.
There is no professional code of conduct that permits hacks to ignore outside realities. In the real world of the good politician, inconvenient facts and inconvenient responsibilities assert themselves.
Using your brain to separate sentiment from fact isn’t the same as believing that means are ends, that staying afloat is served by going below deck.
Of course, some higher principles are higher than others. And, at any moment, you can get into an argument about which one is first. So, recognizing their place doesn’t make politics less complicated. (Two examples that can override day-to-day political calculation: financial soundness and national unity. Serving either can entail risks to the other as well as the short-term survival of the politician.)
However, respecting a higher obligation doesn’t necessarily make dangerous times more dangerous. And the cynics’ advice to wait out uncertainty—and wait for a consensus magically to form amongst the people—doesn’t always dictate what successful leaders decide.
For instance, Canada’s former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced a 7 per cent goods and services tax (GST) even though the idea had been rejected by all previous federal governments as a sound concept that made no political sense. It is now a mainstay of Canada’s public finances and a mainstay of Mulroney’s reputation.
To the surprise of many of his political allies across Canada, Pierre Trudeau did not gracefully surrender his campaign to patriate the Canadian constitution after the Canadian Supreme Court judged that he and his federalist allies had abused constitutional precedent. Canadians, he was warned, were fed up with endless constitutional debate and were satisfied that he’d already done his best. Regardless, he persisted, and in 1982 Canada  got its own constitution with an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In port, you can buy a boat that floats. However, you have to take it out to sea to know whether the boat—and the captain—are seaworthy.

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