Commentary Magazine


Returning Politics to Its Rightful Place in American Life

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

There’s much wisdom in these observations. For Kennedy and liberals in general, politics is the means through which idealism is pursued. Conservatives tend to be somewhat resistant to that outlook, believing politics is the way we should solve public problems–but believing as well that idealism should be pursued much more in our private lives, outside of the political arena.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean politics can’t take on special significance at particular moments in time. And it isn’t to downgrade the importance of politics in the least. But it is to say that when politics is done right and well, it allows the space for a free people to pursue excellence.

And of course the more grandeur and utopian hopes we invest in politics, the more likely it is that people will turn against it, as politics and government fail to produce the wonders and miracles we’re told to expect. For more, see Obama, Barack (2008), and promises like these.

One of the chief contributions of conservatism is to help people to understand the limitations of politics, to place more modest expectations on it, and to return politics in its rightful place in American society.