17 October 2012

A treatise on political craft

[T] he mystery of State-Craft abounds with such innumerable frauds, prostitutions, and enormities, in all shapes, and under all disguises, that it is an inexhaustible fund, an eternal resource for satire and reprehension; since from this grand fountain of corruption flow all those little streams and rivulets, which have spread themselves through every part of this kingdom, and debauched all ranks and orders of men: it shall therefore be my chief business to unravel the dark secrets of political Craft, and trace it through all its various windings and intricate recesses.

-The Craftsman, 1726

The English Whigs whose opposition to the government of Robert Walpole set a precedent for American resistance to parliamentary rule later in the 18th century called one of their journals The Craftsman because they sought to expose and denounce "State-Craft." They thought of "craft" not so much as the practical work of a skilled laborer, but as in "crafty," in a pejorative sense. In 21st century America, David Brooks proposes that the ideal politician be a kind of "craftsman," defined above all by pragmatism. Brooks doesn't equate pragmatism with moderation, as some might, implying that only the person of strong beliefs has anything to compromise, when compromise is necessary. Compromise itself Brooks defines bluntly:

[T]he craftsman has to betray his side. It is relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party. It is really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people in your own party. Therefore, the craftsman has to enter into a conspiracy with the other party’s leader in order to manipulate the party bases. The leaders have to invent stories so that each base thinks it has won. 

Collegiality makes for better conspirators. "[T]he craftsman has to be socially promiscuous," Brooks writes, "Deal-making is about friendship. The craftsman has to work on relationships all day every day. It’s not enough to talk to your adversaries in negotiations. You have to talk to them when nothing is happening. You have to talk to them when they are up, when they are down. You have to celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays." All of this, one infers, is a rebuke to the allegedly aloof President Obama, a vindication of the gregarious Clinton, and a warning to the Tea Party.  

One one point, Brooks, from the moderate right, converges with Sean Wilentz from the moderate left on an apparent key point for the aspiring American machiavel: it is never enough to be right about something.

[T]he craftsman has to avoid the trap of thinking that right makes right. He has to avoid saying to himself: My position is objectively the correct one. Therefore, all I have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate and then I’ll get everything I want. The craftsman has to accept the hard reality that the other side also believes these things. It is extremely unlikely that one side will convince the other, or the country.

Brooks leaves unstated whether he believes an objectively correct position possible or even desirable in politics.   The statement as it stands is damning enough in its presumption that partisan Americans are unreceptive to facts, or at least to politically or ideologically inconvenient facts. The main point, from the viewpoint of the would-be craftsman, is that politics is never rational, or certainly never a pure art of intellectual persuasion. On some level, wherever the debate involves values more than facts, that's indisputable. But one would hope that values are themselves responsive to facts, since otherwise values may as well be pure fantasies. However, once we concede that persuasion through a shared commitment to objectivity is impossible, the pragmatist's only option is craft. Today's political craftsmen see politics as a psychological wargame in which, when reasoned persuasion fails, various forms of personal manipulation or outright trickery are necessary to advance an agenda. Rivals and allies alike are to be cajoled, flattered, bullied (if you take Lyndon Johnson as a model) or just plain lied to as the ends justify. Advocates of this approach may say 'twas ever thus, but if you worry that facts will assert themselves regardless of our values or our willingness to acknowledge them, you might be justified in questioning whether the old ways are adequate in response either to today's ideological polarization or tomorrow's existential imperatives. I'm less interested in whether our representatives in Washington or the several statehouses are buddies than in whether American civilization can be preserved. A pragmatist might think himself ideally suited to that purpose, but if Brooks's craftsmanship defines what pragmatism is, we may be in big trouble.

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