Friday, August 05, 2016

On Practical Political Reality

I had the sense that [Ignatieff] could not emphasize enough to an outsider—or, in another sense, entirely explain—how practicing politics was utterly unlike philosophizing about it at the front of a classroom or, for that matter, in the back seat of a car: there are no philosopher-kings, or even philosophical prime ministers. To praise something for being “undertheorized” was to address it in all its practical political reality.

“It’s a completely different role,” he said. “The thing that politics most strongly resembles is being on soccer teams and hockey teams when I was a child. It’s not a lonely writer in his den thinking thoughts. You’re mostly listening all day long to people, trying to take the measure of their personalities—their strengths, their weaknesses. It’s much closer to being a journalist. You sit with other politicians: what does this person really want? You hear what she’s saying. But what does she really want? That’s a political moment. You’re in a town hall with two hundred and fifty people, and you’re trying to get a sense of the room, of what makes these people tick. It’s a very different skill from being a writer. Isaiah himself was fascinated by the question: what is it that a great politician knows? What is that form of knowledge? Last night, Zsuzsanna and I were watching the Detroit Red Wings goalie, and he knows something: what is it that he knows? What is it that a great politician knows? The great ones have a skill that is just jaw-dropping, and I’m trying to learn that.”

Had it been a steep learning curve? I wondered out loud.

“Vertical!” He exploded in laughter. “Face of the Eiger!” Then he said, “As an intellectual, you can speculate, you can ruminate, you can muse about things. Can’t do that in politics. They want to know what you think, what you do. A lot of the time, intellectuals are engaged in the business of showing how clever they are. The public isn’t interested in how clever you are. It wants something very different, which is, Can I trust this guy? Does this guy understand me and will this guy be with me when times are difficult? There’s a totally different relationship between the politician and his audience and the intellectual and his audience.”
"The Return of the Native" by Adam Gopnik (the first article I read by him). And of course, let's not forget the "fire and ashes" that resulted from Ignatieff's leadership.