Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Politics: Where Up is Down and Good is Bad

Last week, David Brooks began a two-part series on eight books that have had a major influence in his own life (a summer reading list of sorts, should you want to learn about the inner-workings of Brooks’ soul).

One of the books on his list is the American political classic All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Brooks writes that King’s Men shows “the way good can come from bad, and bad can come from good,” and “asks if in politics you have to sell your soul in order to have the power to serve the poor.”

12 years ago, my senior year English teacher gave me King’s Men with an inscription that exclaimed, “Forewarned is Forearmed!” Reading the novel at the age of 18, I understood it from the perspective of an outsider to politics—someone who had been interested in the craft of governing from a young age, but whose experience with the daily give and take of compromise and contradiction was cabined to the four walls of our New England style town meetings, which to this day remain not particularly representative of how government works in big cities, state capitals, or the halls of Congress.
Senator Huey Long (D-LA) (aka "Willie Stark")

I picked up King’s Men again recently, now a self-styled “insider” of the political process, albeit one who is ever-wary of the obsession that comes with the incessant machinations people go through to inhabit the inner most circles of power (a means that all too often becomes the end—HT to Professor Roger Porter for this piece of wisdom).

The impetus to my second read was a discussion I overheard outside my office, but inside the NYC political world about the results of a report. The takeaway was that it was “good” that the data revealed gross inequities in city services because that narrative could generate press, which could, in turn, inure to the benefit of both the principal and the New Yorkers who were not being adequately served.

It immediately brought to find a passage from King’s Men in which Willie Stark is seeking to oust Dolph Pillsbury, the political boss of Mason County, Louisiana. Willie had little fortune upending Pillsbury’s regime until an accident on a fire escape at a local schoolhouse shoddily put together by a corrupt associate of Pillsbury’s changed the political environment forever.

[S]ome of the brickwork gave and the bolts and bars holding the contraption to the wall pulled loose and the whole thing fell away, spraying kids in all directions. Three kids were killed outright. They were the ones that hit the concrete walk. About a dozen were crippled up pretty seriously and several of those never were much good afterward.

It was a piece of luck for Willie.

Only in politics could an epic tragedy in which kids perish be accurately and coldly declared a “piece of luck” for a challenger. And yet, as Warren noted, such “luck” need not be actively exploited. “Willie didn’t try to cash in on the luck. He didn’t have to try. People got the point.”

Indeed, in politics, what challengers often need to win is to have misfortune befall a stronger candidate (frequently the incumbent)—misfortune that typically manifests in suffering for real people and their communities.

This is not a “problem” that requires solving, but is instead an intractable, if unnerving truth about democratic politics. There are only so many seats. What matters is not whether a challenger “takes advantage” of misfortune to rise to power, as Stark went on to do, but instead whether that challenger (a) understands the true nature of the tragedy and is not blind to the real suffering that enabled her rise; and (b) views the opportunity presented by fate as an opportunity to do good by the People, rather than by herself.

Politics takes thick skin—which is to say that you need to be able to take a punch, but also have the courage to throw one when the moment is right, sure in the belief that while aiming to win is anything but a selfless act, it is worth fighting for when motivated by the desire to serve and not be served.

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