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, October 10, 2014

Adapt to change? That’s what we do in the Middle East.

The elites we reward when we vote can handle hooded reactionaries in Eastern Europe and hooded reactionaries in the Middle East. It’s change at home that befuddles them.

Incumbent governments and their leaders in Canada, US, and Europe confidently seek re-election as steady international problem-solvers. They scorn isolationists and nationalist romantics, and promise to continue killing violent radicals.

It’s the height of sophistication to spell, pronounce, and accurately categorize the latest bad-boy sects abroad. At home, they use stale generalizations and stale labels to put down resistance that even breathes in the polls.

Insiders mortgage their lives to stay on top and tell us not to fear change. They ask us to trust them and, also, to run away from political "paranoids."

Our overstaffed governors know more about our pressure points, our private lives, and our political biases — literally, how to handle us — than any governing elite in history. 

And the gathering wave of political frontrunners stands for continuity. Justin Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Thomas Mulcair, and Ed Miliband are born political animals. When they get emotional, it’s about the past.

If the West’s strategic advantage were strictly conservative, we’d be blessed.

Being decisive overseas, unfortunately, is making it less necessary for our leaders to lead change at home — where our true advantage lies.

Today’s nihilists and corrupt authoritarians are child’s play compared to the enemies Western leaders faced only two generations ago. That, alone, is hardly a bad thing. Making headline news by managing manageable problems elsewhere, however, has become addictive. And the skills necessary to address novel challenges here are not being effectively exercised.

Decision-makers and agenda-setters can’t get exercised about everything of consequence — at the same time. They learn from their successes, less from failures, and almost nothing from what they leave for their successors.

They make trade-offs and nudge us to as well. The people don’t want to elect a Jimmy Carter and a Ronald Reagan for the same term.

When history sums things up, there’s a decent chance Obama is going to score as the most transformative foreign policy President since Richard Nixon. America’s postwar baby — global capitalism — is growing despite a severe global recession. American foreign policy is becoming less burdensome, less beholden to old sentiments and arrangements in Europe and the Middle East, and US public opinion has moved along with him.

Domestically, however, there’s a decent chance he’ll be seen as another coy conservative who employed his eloquence and personal popularity to make it politically respectable to let significant problems fester. In his second term, “not doing stupid stuff” domestically has come to mean: don’t overreach, always appeal to tested homilies, and never fail conspicuously.

Tethering significant domestic responsibilities to entrenched clichés may save a handful of unproductive Democrats in Congress. But that won’t change Congress.

Doing some good is not always better than trying to do too much.

Climate change is a classic example.

Rather than repeating what every reasonable person already knows and passing executive orders that can be scrapped by the next President unilaterally, Obama could put forward a concrete legislative plan, including an unlovable carbon tax. He has the voice, if not to win immediately in Congress, at least to bind one national political party to a concrete, comprehensive response.

Obama’s healthcare accomplishment was built on the shoulders of numerous failures. So was Roosevelt’s New Deal. A viable response to climate change probably needs at least one President who can loose big as well as give strong speeches.  

One of the essential reasons the West has been more adaptive than its ideological adversaries has been the relative freedom of its leaders to overreach, to ask a little too much of the people and powerful interests — and lose.

Happily, our vanquished leaders don’t need private armies, Swiss bank accounts, or safe houses overseas. They can fail.

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