Politics is the art of the possible.
Otto Von Bismarck, German politician (1815 – 1898)
remark made on Aug. 11, 1867 (source)
Politicians and fishermen have a few things in common. They share inflated expectations when they set off on their bold endeavors. But when fishermen come home empty-handed, they redeem themselves with one-that-got-away stories. For politicians who almost achieved their goals, the homecoming is less ennobling. They are derided as useless hacks, quixotic bums, or Willy Lomans with lawn signs.
And justly because real politicians don’t lose.
The full aesthetics of Bismarck’s otherwise gruff observation is in its negative space. What isn’t politics? To Aristotle’s disappointment, politics is not the art of rhetoric. Jane Austen may be dismayed to hear that politics is also not the art of persuasion. Politics is also not popularity, which will astound politicos who think twitter follower count is a measure of their electability.
Real politics don’t lose. Indeed, Bismarck though enough of “real politics” to coin the term realpolitik — which keeps it real, in all the contemporary, slang senses of that phrase.
Coming closer to the mark is the more prosaic notion that politics is the art of getting (oneself or someone else) elected. Ultimately, politics is that aspect of human endeavor that results in successful resolution of open questions. Politics only applies to winning winnable contests. Losing un-winnable contests is not what politicians do; that is what martyrs do.
This blog posits that all good politics is about winning contests — popular elections, committee consensuses, private disputes — and that the future of social order depends critically on those who manage to win.
So is winning everything? This leads to the eternal moral question: do the ends justify the means? For Bismarck’s realpolitik, the answer would be natürlich. I see the problem in more of an epistemological sense. Which are the means and which are the ends? They are more plastic that we’d like to believe, and they can mutate into one another in a single distracted moment. Political operatives themselves are professional “means” — means-for-hire — and as such are ends in themselves. In a world where, transmutation of means and ends is trivially achieved, we must bring a moral compass to help sort out the right vs. wrong. I’ll bring mine; you bring yours. Let’s hope they line up. And let’s do the right thing.
Beyond that, expect Shakespeare and philosophy and some literature and popular culture and my own flavor of peevishness when I see that I am misperceiving the possible as badly as the next Willy Loman with a blog.