Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Random Musing on Politics

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers suggests that every work of art or craft should be seen as exhibiting three aspects, analogous to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. Elsewhere she refers to these three aspects as the Idea, the Energy, and the Power. The Idea is what is unfolded in the work of art; the Energy is what we would often call the execution; and the Power is roughly its ability to initiate a response. In principle every artist aims to find the perfect proportion and balance among these three. In practice no one succeeds: everyone's triangle is scalene, sometimes slightly, sometimes severely.

Vico regarded government as a factibile, something made, and I think one can, as a rough but interesting exercise, think of governments as exhibiting these three. And as with works of art, every triangle is at least slightly scalene, and sometimes severely so.

I was somehow put in mind of this by a side comment in Arsen's post on archaism and futurism:

The French Revolution serves as a classical and large-scale example of a real try at futurism. Its henchmen even changed the names of the months on the calendar. The current Tea Party movement serves as a minor example of an archaist reaction to the initiatives of the Obama administration. That administration is wrongly seen as futurist in its intentions. Alas, it’s merely rational—but unfortunately also inept. Its futurist coloration is a very pale shade of pink and derives from the illusion that change can be made almost entirely by magical PR gestures intended to influence public opinion.

This does seem to be a besetting sin -- an artistic heresy, to use Sayers's phrase -- of the Obama administration, one that was actually foreshadowed, I think, by some of Obama's approach to campaigning. The administration takes an Idea, often a very interesting Idea worth developing, but then goes directly for the Power, as if the Idea itself would overwhelm all opposition by a kind of intrinsic magic. This was much the way Obama campaigned, too: ideas robed in a cloud of BOMFOG and glitter.

One is tempted to contrast this with the Bush administration, with all its emphasis on energy and forcefulness and decision and changing the world, and say that that administration was all Energy and no Idea. But this is not right, I think, and would come from accepting too uncritically the administration's own view of itself. In fact, the Bush administration was pretty thoroughly inept, as well: it, too, was an Idea-ridden administration (Spread Democracy! Go to Mars!) that expected Ideas magically to glide directly into Power without the difficult, careful, intricate work -- the actual act of administration -- required to make it happen; it just happens that one of the Ideas with which the Bush administration was enamored was the Idea of what Hamilton called an "energetic magistrate". But that Idea, too, was an Idea that they simply expected to overwhelm with its own intrinsic force; the attempt actually to put it into practice was slipshod, confused, and inept. Their Idea of Energy had no Energy.

I suspect that you might actually find this to be a common problem among American administrations. The degree to which it is a problem no doubt varies from administration to administration -- no government is scalene in exactly the same way. But American-style campaigning, especially at the Presidential level, gives almost no room for making a choice of the President that takes Energy into account. We do not test out administrative competence on the campaign trail; it is not part of our run-up to the election that each candidate is required to spend a week as Acting President so we can see how they handle the day-to-day details. At most we look at their record, and even there we don't look at the day-to-day but at the big things they did. Nobody runs on a campaign platform of quiet and tidy management that slowly and carefully refines and improves what we have; they run on some big idea which they insist will change the way we do things forever. After all, what would be stirring about someone who said that his goal as President would be to improve government accounting practices, reorganize the executive branch to improve efficiency, and to initiate a more systematic ethics review system in order to reduce corruption? It often seems like the last time that this sort of thing was a campaign issue was in the struggle over the spoils system, and like the last time that a President made a name doing this sort of thing was Chester A. Arthur, who put an end to all sorts of corruption by pushing forward a regular civil service -- and that, beneficial as it was, still only got people's attention by being a big, flashy idea.

So perhaps democracies and republics are plagued by the problem of Energy-deficiency. That is indeed very close to how some theorists of democratic government have seen them. Montesquieu's solution (found encapsulated for American's in George Washington's Farewell address) was that this sort of problem could only be remedied by virtue among the people. So perhaps we are doomed, and our good intentions, piling up without the care and craft to put them to good effect, are paving the road into our inevitable future.

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