The Art Of The Possible

One of the many songs I love from the Evita soundtrack, sung somewhat cynically by Antonio Bandaras (as a somewhat overage Che Guevara), is the song “Art of the Possible.” It is a well known truism (perhaps even a cliche by this point) that politics is the art of the possible. This is one of the many reasons why ideologues tend to make miserably poor politicians and why extremist political ideologies tend not to be very successful. After all, most people are not particularly ideological people–they care more about relationships than they do about having “rational” and “consistent” worldviews. And, truth be told, most ideologies are not very rational themselves. But that is another subject, and let us not be distracted by tangents.

If we are taking the dictum seriously that politics is the art of the possible, and we are not merely being cynical and lazy about our ability to motivate others, we must first examine what is possible. In a given political contest we are dealing with people (voters and candidates) who have a given political worldview. In the course of a single political campaign, we cannot hope to drastically alter that political worldview. The best we can do (and this is often labeled as pandering) is to demonstrate some kind of agreement between our own agenda (or platform) and the existing worldviews of either the candidates we wish to support or the people whose support we want.

This pandering can be either illegitimate or legitimate. Much depends on the ends to which that pandering is used. For example, in the 1858 Illinois Senate election, Stephen Douglas [1], the incumbent Democrat, was not shy at all to appeal to the racist mentality of the Illinois voter of the time to support his own racist politics. Interestingly enough, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the racism of his audience in a way that ultimately spoke against racism. He stated that the only man he knew who believed in “perfect equality” of the races was Richard Johnson, a former Vice President of the United States (under Martin Van Buren) and a friend of Stephen Douglas, who had a slave “wife” and two daughters who married into fine Southern families, but who had no surviving children of their own. Lincoln also stated, accurately, that the biggest cause of racial amalgamation, which horrified the majority of citizens of his state, was the institution of slavery, which prevented slaves of one ethnicity from rejecting the unwanted sexual advances from their masters (or family members of their masters) of another ethnicity.

This is, of course, pandering. But if one wishes to appeal to the people in a political campaign, one has to take their existing political worldview as a given and then seek to craft the most persuasive appeal given that worldview. The same is true with candidates. We may not share the worldview of either the voters we are appealing to or the candidates we have to choose between. Nonetheless, issues of prudence and realism should greatly influence our decisions. In the absence of perfection this side of paradise, we are often in the position of having to choose between the least of the evils or the best of the goods, as we understand it from a complete and total perspective. Good men and women will, of course, differ on these matters for various personal reasons.

That said, the goal of a leader is to shape and change the worldview of others, and that task requires great skill and time. Most of us have some tension and contradiction in our worldviews, at least multiple commitments to ideals and relationships that may be opposed to each other, at least in their pure form. For example, I am firmly committed to both freedom and equality. My commitment to freedom leads me to impose the imposition of certain types of equality (equality of wealth or of rewards) out of a firm belief that an inequality of work and ability should be recognized in the rewards given for tasks, and that it is unjust to confiscate from some to give to others (and this applies in far more areas than is often realized). Likewise, my commitment to equality means that I do not believe in the freedom to do as I please, as my belief in the equality of dignity of all human beings as beings created in the image and likeness of God constrains me from oppressing or abusing or exploiting others, even where it is possible for me to do so by virtue of my own strength or power. Given these tensions (for they are not contradictions), there must be a balance where neither perfect liberty nor perfect equality is to be found, but where a balance is maintained between different principles that allows for justice and fairness to be maintained.

If we desire to shift this equilibrium, we must be very careful. First, we must be careful that we have the genuine best interests of others in mind. If our motives are not trusted, people will not support our ideas no matter how theoretically correct or logically consistent they are. If we want to appeal to people and win political campaigns, people must be able to trust that their best interests will be served by supporting our ideals, our agendas, our campaigns, and our candidates. In the absence of trust, no amount of browbeating is going to lead to the desired result. We and our cohorts of ‘true believers’ in a given ideology may mock and insult those who believe differently, but if we desire to genuinely persuade, that ridicule and reviling must be replaced by love and respect. Both are rare in any kind of political struggle in any kind of period of crisis such as we are in around the world in all of our institutions simultaneously.

It is our ability to demonstrate our love and outgoing concern for others, as well as our competence in dealing with the problems of our day and age and situation, that lead to effective and long-lasting political achievements. This is not something to mocked or disregarded. It is impossible to do anything in any institution, be it a family or a church, much less a community or a nation, if one cannot martial political power, so if one has any kind of leadership aspirations whatsoever becoming skilled at dealing with politics (however much one may abhor corrupt politics) is a necessary course of action. If we want people to support us, they have to support us and trust us. That means that whatever disagreements exist between our worldview and theirs cannot be seen as differences that would lead us to directly harm them or their interests. If we care more about an ideology than the well being of flesh and blood people, we are probably not going to be supported by most flesh and blood people, and we will have deserved their scorn and hostility.

It is our limited ability to change political worldview, especially in the short run, that makes the political health of a society or institution dependent on the virtue of its people. Godly leaders will not be supported by a corrupt voting public, and corrupt leaders will be thrown out by a virtuous voting public. If we look at the state of our societies and feel despair at the level of corruption, we have to choose whether we will curse the darkness or light a candle and try to make the world a better place by our example one person and one relationship at a time. The choice and responsibility are ours. Politics is the art of the possible, and until we try our best, with love and respect, for all our lives, we do not know what we will accomplish.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/at-what-price-reconciliation-lessons-from-stephen-douglas/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Art Of The Possible

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Lincoln At Peoria | Edge Induced Cohesion

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