Characteristics of Politics

Henry Kissinger said that ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad name. Of course Kissinger is one of the genuinely bad ones, implicated in violence against humanity such as the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, the invasion of East Timor by Suharto’s Indonesia, and the overthow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile by the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet.

Nevertheless, it is worth distinguishing between good and bad politics. Bad politics is factionalism, manipulation, Machiavellianism. It is power-based, using power to get our way, exercising power to overcome the legitimate interests of others without due process or debate. It is the politics we are used to — the politics that has given politics a bad reputation.

Good politics is more fundamental to human nature. It is about appreciating people’s talents and welding them into a whole. It is about collectively discerning the good, finding the right direction for our societies, and discovering ways to harmoniously deploy our combined attributes and resources to reach our goals. Yes, it involves prioritization and economics, because there are hard decisions to make, but it is based on respect for the weak, and the desire for wholeness.

In this article I will explore some of the characteristics of good politics under the following headings:

1. Discerning the Good
2. “The Master Art”
3. Diversity
4. Pluralism
5. Dialectic
6. Awareness
7. Pragmatism

1. Discerning the Good

Aristotle famously said that “man is a political animal”, and he distinguished mankind from other creatures such as bees who are merely social. What makes mankind political is our ability to discern the good, and to collectively strive for it. Bees are not political because although they are social they cannot reflect on their purpose nor adjust their behaviour. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes:

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the Good and the chief Good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature.”

2. “The Master Art”

Politics is “the master art” because it takes all other skills and arts within a society and welds them into a coherent whole, tending towards the chief Good:

“It is [politics] that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the Good for man.”

Each art or skill has its own particular end or ‘good’: “In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end.” All these goods serve the chief Good which is happiness, just as all the arts and sciences serve the master art which is politics. Happiness is the final Good, which is pursued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else.

3. Diversity

What is the smallest political unit? The modern state is political, the city or town is political, even the family can be thought of as political, because they are all composite social organizations made up of multiple individual human members. What about individuals ourselves? Are we political units? Is there some sort of ‘political’ process occurring within each of us individually?

In many ways the process of individual psychological development is similar to politics. We try to use our faculties such as reason and intuition to discern the good for ourselves — to find purpose and meaning in our lives — and then we try to move our lives in that direction. Often we undergo internal struggle, as visions of the good life compete with one another, or recalcitrant attitudes attached to inferior ways of living resist and protest, binding us to negative behaviors.

Is it too much of a leap to say that the process of individual self-development is truly ‘political’ rather than just a similitude of politics? Perhaps the individual does not fulfill the basic precondition for a political entity, of being a composite social organisation. Surely in order for an entity to be political it must be composed of discrete, diverse units, each with some sort of autonomy. Is it correct to say that our thoughts, emotions, dreams, unconscious tendencies and so forth have enough autonomy, diversity and discretion to make each individual a political unit?

To what extent are even the individuals within a society autonomous? To some extent individuality itself is an illusion. If we try to draw hard and fast lines between ourselves we will fail. We are all swimming in the same cultural soup and our psychological lives are the texture of that soup. Looking from above the bowl it looks like a single meal, even though from inside the bowl we are each identifying ourselves as discrete ‘chunks’!

If a political entity does not need to fulfill the strong criteria of being composed of discrete, diverse, fully autonomous units, it does at least need to fulfill the weaker criterion of being heterogenous — composed of distinguishable parts. A completely bland and homogenous entity cannot be political. Under this weaker criterion the individual could be political.

Diversity, at least in the sense of heterogeneity (i.e. distinguishable difference within an entity) is a necessary precondition for politics, along with dialectic: the possibility for resolving tension arising from difference by using individual or collective discernment of the good.

4. Pluralism

A concept which further illuminates diversity is pluralism. Pluralism is diversity-plus! Diversity is difference, and pluralism is recognizing strength in difference. Pluralism does not merely tolerate diversity, it rejoices in it.

Pluralism should not be confused with liberalism (Parekh, 2006). Liberalism espouses a particular set of values such as the importance of individual freedom and autonomy. Pluralism on the other hand espouses no values other than the appreciation of good qualities in diversity. Liberalism can be intolerant of those who do not espouse liberal values, such as members of traditional religions and pre-Enlightenment cultures. Pluralism on the other hand looks for the strengths in both liberal and traditional cultures. Therefore either liberals or conservatives can be pluralistic.

The point about pluralism is that it requires flexibility. It requires the ability to step outside our own skins and inhabit others’ space. Seeing the world through others’ eyes we come to appreciate their good qualities. This enables the resolution of tensions or conflicts between groups, the dialectic that makes politics work.

5. Dialectic

Dialectic is the resolution of difference. It takes two positions which are in tension (thesis and antithesis) and finds a third position (synthesis) which resolves the tension.

Politics is the governing element of society because it is capable of resolving tensions between different groups and moving the whole society in a particular direction. When politics is working well a society enjoys a high degree of unity. When politics is not working then the differences within a society widen into deep and painful rifts.

The unity enjoyed by a society in which politics is working should not be mistaken for uniformity. Unity is possible whether a society is culturally uniform or heterogenous (i.e. multicultural). The most dynamic harmonious societies are pluralistic.

6. Awareness

Good politics involves awareness of the larger, ‘macro’ dimension of our activities. It is lifting up our heads from the particular tasks we are engaged in to see the bigger picture. It means investing our activities with a broader awareness, thereby improving their quality. Political awareness is an uplifting experience and also poignant, because we know that many of our activities are links in a chain of suffering. For example, if we understand where our food comes from we may become aware of the poverty of many of the farmers who produce it, the pollution caused by transporting it, the difficulties of retailing it, and the compromises made in cooking it. This awareness is political and it may change our behaviour with regard to what food we buy, from where, and how we treat it. Organic food pioneer Alice Waters describes her restaurant as “a political place where people are not just engaged in the creative process of making food but they are aware of the consequences out there in the world.”

Political awareness is a form of spirituality because it invests our activities with a sense of connectedness to a bigger whole. Spirituality inbues activity with a special quality which can truly be called creativity or productivity. Political awareness means that we are deeply immersed in our activities and at the same time we transcend them. The opposite of the feeling of connectness that comes from political awareness is alienation. Activity performed in a state of alienation is devoid of any spiritual quality. It is exhausted and exhausting. It is truly unproductive.

7. Pragmatism

An important truth about the pragmatic nature of politics is captured in the saying “politics is the art of the possible”. Politics is ultimately practical: it is about implementing solutions. People can dream of many things, but if they want their dreams to become real they must get involved in the practical sphere of politics. Politics is grounded in the world.

Being idealistic on its own is not enough, but this does not mean that people should not be idealistic. Simply being pragmatic may result in policy being implemented, but it will not result in society moving forward. The good politician needs a balance between idealism and pragmatism, between heaven and earth.

Posted on September 21, 2008, in Politics. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The section on ‘awareness’ is encouraging as it’s a wonderful way to overcome feelings of political impotence. It is also quite humbling as it seems to imply that it’s impossible to withdraw from the political sphere, even if we wish to, as we are responsible for our actions whether we like it or not. If we, ourselves, are like little political microcosms we can never completely hand over political responsibility to the government (good news or bad news?!!).
    As individual political microcosms, the moral conscience in our internal world could be likened to a benevolent leader; and our selfish intention to the party rebels. The rest of our thoughts are like ministers and backbenchers, some aiding the benevolent leader, and others creating obstacles. A skilful leader will gently win over her rebels by understanding them rather than allowing factions to develop (factionalism being analogous to aggressive internal struggle).

    With Pluralism, though, I’m struggling to understand how it can exist in any sense other than in the abstract. Either a) Pluralism is devoid of political value judgement or b) Pluralism involves some form of political value judgement. If Pluralism were to employ a ‘tolerance of diversity’ ethos, then this would imply a value judgement akin to Liberalism (as already mentioned in the article), so Pluralism clearly isn’t b).
    The only alternative, then, is for Pluralism to be a). If it is not ‘tolerance of diversity’ that characterises Pluralism, then it must be the diversity itself that Pluralists consider to have intrinsic value (hence they “rejoice” in the good that is diversity rather than “tolerate” it as if it were a burden). If diversity has an intrinsic value then the implication of this is that ‘sameness’ lacks merit, and that the greater the diversity…the superior the political structure. Taken to its logical conclusion: a society containing thousands of different political preferences would be a political utopia.
    The Pluralist might say that it is possible to pin point specific essential common goals that are free from value judgement (as Humanists do), but these would have to be pretty rustic and vague, such as ‘happiness’. As soon as more detail is required value judgements creep in do they not?

  2. maada sellu lungay

    I love this material it is very educative and comprehensive about the features of politics.

  3. maada sellu lungay

    what a beautiful presentation

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