Some people worry that we are, collectively, indifferent to politics. I am beginning to worry that I have not been indifferent enough.
It’s a frightening idea: maybe politics matters far less than I thought. Am I just wasting the time I spend following it? Like a slightly maniacal lover I keep up with the minutiae of prime ministerships and presidencies on my phone, in cafes, and occasionally in my dreams.
On my deathbed will I look back desperately, impotently wondering why I gave so much thought and attention to the recent leadership struggle in Australia, the Queensland election or the Republican primaries in the US?
Why do we tune in to politics and scan the news websites? In some way, political stories are the gossip of the tribe, and we participate in our society by following its narratives; that’s part of what it is to belong to a community. And there is an appetite for novelty – for the sheer distraction of hearing the latest thing.
But behind these low-grade impulses there is a deeper and grander hope. And that is the belief that somewhere in these political stories and developments we can find the real substance of what is happening to the nation. We hope we are not just witnessing a side-show.
The two faces of politics
As we look at the surface of politics, we feel we can see the real government and leadership of society at work. When we see Romney is down in the polls or that Gillard has seen off a challenge from her former foreign minister we feel we are somehow engaging with politics.
Part of me wants to say: politics doesn’t matter. And another part of me wants to insist that politics is the most important of all human activities. But how to clear up this paradox?
What I’ve come to see is that politics is really two very different kinds of thing, maddeningly going by the same name. Like identical twins, with opposed characters. We are always mixing them up, but really they are totally different people.
The first thing politics means is the struggle for the top positions. This could be the top positions in the nation, or it could be the top positions in a large business, or a university. This is the tactical manoeuvring, the sudden move, the rivalries, alliances, betrayals and all the human drama of competition.
On the other hand, when Aristotle wrote his treatise on Politics, he wasn’t concerned with that kind of struggle for dominance. He wanted to understand how societies flourish. He was trying to find out how collective life can go really well – and to learn the lessons of failures. And politics in this sense is the practical art of getting a society, as a whole, to flourish.
Drama at the telephone company
Of course it is possible for the two kinds of politics to come together. And when they do it is a noble sight.
Think of artist Jacques-Louis David’s The Tennis Court Oath, which shows the French deputies in 1789 swearing not to break up until they have given their country a just constitution. Think of heroic parliaments and founding fathers who have been the true leaders of their societies.
It is because of examples like these that the word “politics” carries, at least for me, a ring of importance and epic vision that comes down from history.
Now strike these from your imagination.
Despite the show at the top, the heart of politics is revealed in the actual workings of our governing institutions. In War and Peace, Tolstoy examines the difficulty we have in focusing our attention of the real workings of societies.
He says a society is a bit like a steam train. Our first inclination is to look at the clouds of dirty vapour puffing out of the chimney and think: that is what makes the wheels go round. Our inclination – without really thinking about it – is to imagine that the high drama at the top is what really counts.
Leadership battles are exciting by their very nature. But political leadership battles are in many respects very similar to those that might occur in the boardroom of a telephone company. They are fights for who gets to make the decisions, who gets to be head of what, who is rising, whose career is beginning to decline. The human drama is there; but the actual policies and decisions at stake often, in themselves, lack real grandeur and ambition.
It’s not that it makes no difference at all whether banking is reformed in precisely this way or that, or whether a bit more money going to infrastructure or health might be a good thing. Rather, these issues – the issues with which politics mostly deals – cover only a small fraction of what it takes to get a society to flourish. In politics there are dramatic campaigns and fights for top positions, but the underlying concerns leave one with the impression that humans have inherited no more capacities and longings than those of a shellfish clinging to a rock: security and immediate material needs.
We are in trouble because our system is set up to address important but basic needs and cannot perceive or address the real challenges now facing affluent countries.
Expecting nothing to go particularly well in society is usually quite wise. As far as I can tell from my own portion of it, human life in general is full of error, shortcoming, disappointment and regret. Like most of the essentially fragile creatures ornamenting the Earth we spend most of our time just trying to stop things going more uniquely wrong than normal.
The long view
Nevertheless it is instructive to focus on where we feel we are doing especially badly right now as a civilization. Near the top of the list we might put a worrying lack of long-term thinking.
Like most gigantic but unfamiliar issues before they are properly understood, this worry appears as a background anxiety across a whole range of areas. We feel that a widespread lack of long-term thinking was in some way partly responsible for the financial crisis, but we don’t really know how to get more of it or what went wrong.
We know we need a long-term view to look after the ecosystems on which we depend. And as we move into the second century of our experiment with modern democracy, it seems increasingly plausible that the processes themselves work against some of the collective capacities we most require.
Most of the time none of this bothers me at all. I am caught up in a dozen smaller dramas. Occasionally though when I lie on pillow at midnight having all the anxious thoughts I didn’t make time for during the day, the sense of our collective lack of perspective finds its way in.
What I find most alarming is that I have nowhere to take this problem. There are plenty of people to blame but no one out there to console me, to say, “I’m afraid too, but we’re working on this.” The worry about long-term thinking receives no reception from our current set-up. Neither our departments nor our parliaments are well placed to do anything about it.
A more noble pursuit
In what is still the best handbook for how to get a real education, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller makes the point that a state cannot found a good culture but can only be founded upon one. A good government is a side effect of a good culture. The word “culture” is a vague label we use for two of the most crucial aspects of a society.
First, everything that a society loves or thinks it should value. Second, everything that a society avoids or regrets; the things we feel it is necessary to forgive rather than praise. Most people don’t deliberately choose their taste. But what we esteem and fear plays itself out everywhere, in patterns of daily life, how children are raised, how people spend money, and how the government works.
One crucial difference between the desire for power and money that drives our form of democracy and the habits of long-term thinking is that the former are natural and the latter are artificial. We can rely on jealousy and competition as part of any human society, but it is a deliberate task of formation to generate the capacity and disposition to keep the long-term in view. This is the connection with Schiller: we need to become more deliberate about what we admire and what we don’t if we want to get serious about pursuing long-term thinking.
We need to get less interested in the ups and downs of politics (and fashion in general), less preoccupied with basic material needs and more interested in grand politics: the politics of noble ambitions and moral leadership.
There is also a slightly guilty but deeply liberating thrill in admitting to yourself that you find something quite dull, which you have felt you were supposed to be interested in.
Let us take our own oath: I will no-longer roam news websites; I will get interested in the real task of building nations.