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)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Partisan leaders—the great unifiers

Gurus, psychologists, and demographers churn out books predicting the disintegration of heterogeneous mass democracies. The United States—the world’s greatest project in mass democracy—is overextended. On the little things, it answers to money; and on the big things, it is paralyzed by divided electorate. Furthermore, the divisions are intensifying; they reflect the way Americans want to live.

Communication technologies help extremists find friends while the open road makes it easier for Americans to avoid even living near the “wrong people.”

The Economist was struck by Bill Bishop’s new book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” Bishop demonstrates that Americans—like people everywhere—generally favor living in likeminded communities and that their exceptional mobility is now further dividing American politics. It’s getting smarter and smarter for political activists to establish themselves on the extremes in both national parties. The Economist offers thin comfort:

“America, says Mr Bishop, is splitting into 'balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” He has a point. Republicans who never meet Democrats tend to assume that Democrats believe more extreme things than they really do, and vice versa. This contributes to the nasty tone of many political campaigns.

“Mr Bishop goes too far, however, when he says the 'big sort' is 'tearing [America] apart'. American politics may be polarised, but at least no one is coming to blows over it. 'We respect each other's views,' says Mrs Wortendyke of the few liberals in the home-schooling movement. 'We hate each other cordially,' says the liberal Mr Balis.”

That’s elegant but inaccurate.

America is not standing in one place and Americans generally are not frozen by hate. Its national leaders continue to make changes and test the social fabric by changing sides.

This week, Obama demonstrated once again the importance of the Office of the Presidency as a unifying national institution.

His decision to endorse same-sex marriage was explained in personal terms. However, it was the kind of decision that that institution encourages the most politically ambitious to make.

You can go a long way in national politics in the US and in a parliamentary democracy like Canada, for instance, by upholding the most extreme or distinct opinions of your community or region—think: eliminating English as an official language in Quebec, living in Texas and opposing any support for the auto industry, or living in Toronto and opposing fossil fuel development in Alberta. However, if you want to lead—and be effective once you get to the top—you also have to help the whole society change its mind.

This involves going against the grain of day-to-day politics and isn’t done too often. Nevertheless, the capacity of national political parties to recruit and promote men and women who can manage society-wide change shouldn’t be overlooked when speculating about whether America still works.

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