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Why Politics Matters

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

In the course of their conversation Mr. Levin, in speaking about policy, says it’s about problem-solving–not ultimate problems but practical ones. This is vital in allowing a society to function well and to become its best self. And he added this:

Politics in the end is moved by arguments. The intellectual work does matter. I think it does absolutely shape outcomes. But it happens in a way that relies on a kind of food chain. Things have to move through our intellectual world and it doesn’t move directly from that kind of work to policymaking; there has to be some time to digest, to think it through. I think that happens on a lot of important issues in our politics. So I am impressed with how ideas move politics but you know it’s not a direct process. Not a simple one.

This is vital to remember. In thinking about politics, after all, people are frustrated with the gridlock and the conflict, the deal-making, the maneuvering, and the mundane. They are disenchanted with the pace and direction of change and those who are in public life for personal aggrandizement. Americans are frustrated and angry with politicians, with politics, and with one another. And so it’s important to remind ourselves, as Levin does, that politics is moved by arguments–haltingly, imperfectly, but inevitably.

(It’s probably worth adding here, if only as a side note, that in America we tend to romanticize our past. Even the Constitutional Convention of 1787–which featured the most extraordinary collection of political minds since ancient Athens–had its own low moments, frustrations and fierce, polarizing battles. It was one of our greatest founders, James Madison, who in Federalist #55 wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” And our greatest president, Lincoln, presided over a nation that was a good deal more polarized–lethally polarized–than ours is today. So some perspective is in order.)

There are several layers to public and political arguments. One of them is focused on hard facts and empirical data, on social science and different governing approaches related to a range of issues like crime, education, health care, welfare, economic growth, and social mobility.

But the other, deeper layer has to do with arguments grounded in political theory, dealing with matters like liberty and equality, individual responsibility and civic duty, justice and human dignity. The greatest practitioners of statecraft are able to make both sets of arguments–to show a mastery of public policy and the ability to articulate a public philosophy. To explain the means and the ends of government and the good society.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature, to paraphrase the 20th century columnist Walter Lippmann. The way that picture developments determines the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilization we create. The political philosophy of Madison produces one set of results; the political philosophy of Marx produces another. So yes: ideas move politics in one direction or the other, toward justice or away from it. Like all things human, it’s imperfect, frustrating, and fraught with failure. It’s a long, hard grind. And it’s not always aesthetically pleasing. But cynicism that leads to political disengagement–the world-weary, pox-on-both-your-houses, what difference does it make, I don’t give a damn attitude that seems rather fashionable and trendy these days–can lead to disaster. Because someone’s ideas will prevail. If ones that advance justice and human flourishing win out, it won’t be by accident or by default. It’ll be the product of determined effort; of those who do not grow weary in doing good.


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