The Tragedy of Politics
Politics, adequately understood, merely means participation in the affairs of society. The purpose of politics is the common good of all members of the community. That fact is sometimes misunderstood, though the common good is usually defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” In other words, a social order allows people to reach their true potential. Regardless, a proper understanding of human nature tells us that politics is complicated, often frustrating, and with minor achievement, frequently leading to tragedy.
As the French novelist Maurice Druon explained in his classic The Accursed Kings, “A statesman’s work is never finished; it’s always in progress. The baker can afford to finish his work; when he’s made his bread, it’s done, and he can go home. But the statesman is never finished. There is always more to do, more to fix, more to improve. And there are always new challenges that arise, new problems that need solving. The statesman’s work is never done. He must be always vigilant, always attentive, always ready to act.”
As such, the tragedy of politics in an imperfect world consists of balancing society’s interests and seeking the common good. Yet, sadly, that work is never finished. The context changes with time, with tastes changing, new ideas coming into the body politic, new leaders, and unexpected events. The art of the statesman, then, is a never-ending thing. One achievement is made, and then other problems arise.
These facts raise specific questions. Is politics a worthy pursuit? What is its role in life? Some of the answers are simple. The basic premise of politics is the common good of all parts of society, which in part means respect for the dignity and value of human life. As has been explained, a citizen should “never […] relinquish their participation in ‘public life,’ that is, in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative, and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good. This would include the promotion and defense of goods such as public order and peace, freedom and equality, respect for human life and for the environment, justice, and solidarity.” So, by definition, politics is a worthy profession if done correctly.
As such, an intelligent and morally good political system, as the Catholic Church teaches, recognizes the human person’s dignity, protects life based on principles such as justice, and allows everyone to achieve their end. To secure these things, governments are formed amongst men. As the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke once remarked, the tasks of the state are “the public peace, the public safety, the public order, the public prosperity.”
Curiously enough, sometimes, in an imperfect world, state affairs require that secrets be kept, a measure of artificial behavior be conducted, and on occasion, decisions of life and death. Power, especially at the top, must be a lonely experience. Nonetheless, when a political system is not founded in these things or drifts away from them, it loses its moral legitimacy. That is why Chinese Communism, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany can never be considered morally acceptable, for example.
Human beings will always live in community and society; it will always be necessary that there exists—at least on this earth—that much-maligned class of professionals: politicians. Of course, none of this means politicians should be treated as exempt from responsibility or duty. To have a public position, and serve the public interests, means that you are responsible for the citizens who have entrusted power to you. Because a large part of politics is the question of organizing and utilizing power, the study and reflection of the political cannot be separated from moral thought and philosophy.
It is why politics may be considered a high art. Some people may feel a vocation toward public service. This is a good thing. Part of the tragedy of our times in political terms is that the entrenched cynicism—which is very understandable when you see the quality of modern “statesmen”—disincentivizes practicing a noble and necessary profession. However, as Sir Winston Churchill said about the pursuit of power and the political: “The pursuit of power with the capacity and in the desire to exercise it worthily is among the noblest of human occupations.” The failure to take the responsibility of power seriously is why demagogues, treason, and corruption are so abhorrent.
It is a shame that very few people want to be involved in politics, especially in a democracy such as the United States, since that means that others will fill the void. And there is no guarantee that these will be trustworthy and good people. Of course, it’s proper that not everyone devotes themselves to political issues. Every person has different vocations. And from a conservative politician’s point of view, it might be safe to say that is the preferable state of things. Conservatives do not want the state and the political to absorb all of society. As such, the role of a conservative statesman can be defined as one in which the conservative seeks to protect the person who doesn’t care about politics from being engulfed by it. In other words, to protect civil society and the voluntary associations and organisms of humanity from being absorbed by the government and fashionable ideas of social engineering by left-wing ideologies.
Now, it is true that power corrupts. Understanding that fact, the Founding Fathers applied graceful wisdom when they developed a framework for limited government through the division of powers. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.”
It is also very prudent to include norms of conduct (and to demand them) from political actors. There are two reasons for this. First, since power corrupts, it cannot be trusted by a single person (hence the separation of powers). Second, for that same reason, power should be entrusted for a limited time. Concentrating power on one person is usually not a good idea, regardless of whether that individual ruler uses power wisely or not. History is filled with powerful and wise rulers (such as Charlemagne or Simón Bolívar) who, after their deaths and failure to institutionalize the rule of law and a functioning state, leave their countries to collapse into chaos and disorder. As such, a good in politics is institutionalization. And as part of institutionalizing a political culture, the ruler should eventually let power go. For example, that was the greatness of George Washington.
Moreover, political figures enter their functions to achieve some practical goal. As President Calvin Coolidge said, “In the higher ranges of public service, men appear to come forward to perform a certain duty. When it is performed, their work is done.” Once that duty is done, the wise statesman should know it’s time to go. If done correctly, the leader can then return to the mass of the people and let another generation take its turn.
Ideally, a successful political leader leaves the stage once he has created a durable political consensus in favor of permanent principles such as a culture of life, law, and order, respect for private property and religious liberty, etc. Conversely, a bad political actor leaves society in a state of anarchy and fevered against permanent values, be it by exposure to foreign threats or higher crime rates.
It is, of course, bizarre that a political leader leaves the scene after success. Usually, success breeds the craving for more triumphs. A trap that leads to eventual political failure. It is far more usual to wish to accumulate power and then refuse to let it go. This doesn’t necessarily mean dictatorships. Even in functional democracies, there are examples of successful politicians staying far longer than it was expedient. Such were the cases of Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, and others who ended their careers in failure. But, human nature, the realities of politics, and the winds of change mean that the political will always engulf and eventually crash any statesman that fails to heed the lesson of leaving power once their main task is done. In short, perhaps this is what J. Enoch Powell meant when he said, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”