I am no political ingenue. I have seen politics in its most unpleasant, rawest essence (one former President of the Cambridge Union would pat people down for wires or other listening devices in the town’s Starbucks when holding a “clandestine” meeting). Brutal political combat, however, is not the norm. For some of us, politics is a kind of secularized theological outpouring: it’s a constant negotiation and voyage of self-discovery of who were are, what is the good life, and what we owe to our neighbors, our community, and the world. Most of us are urged to action from some inchoate sense of the importance of dignity and meaning and social justice, as well as what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now”. Our inspirations could be soaring rhetorical incantations to make a better world, great works of political philosophy, or righting historical wrongs.Perhaps it is the early knowledge of the responsibility of acting. Or, on the flipside, the indignity of being acted upon. Perhaps those moral sentiments were activated because of injustice witnessed close up. Whether socialist or conservative, we know that the observation that “Statecraft is soulcraft” applies both to our political proselytizing to others but also the peering into our own souls and changing the world by changing the person within. Politics is, therefore, the noblest of callings: service, self-sacrifice, and saving souls from the hellfire here on earth. Whether it be “building Jerusalem here” or stopping the world from “Slouching towards Gomorrah“, politics is romantic, redemptive and purposeful.
However, politics is also, as Max Weber put it, the boring of hard boards: meetings and leaflets, dinners with turgid speakers, the accounting of, and limits to, policy changes. To re-tool an old Wilde quotation on hunting, it’s the often dismal in pursuit of the arguably possible. And always more prose than poetry (especially in cynical Britain where any attempt at political poetry is met with indignant scoffing while bemoaning the blancmange of mediocrity that gets served up as a result). For some of us, politics isn’t something you “do”, it’s part of who you are. And some find romance in the most prosaic: MPs become mini-celebrities to many of those immersed in its sub-culture. Some turn leaflet-delivery into a cult. Perhaps, for others, in-depth conversations on Land Value Taxation serve a similar purpose to discussing the intricacies of Star Wars fan fiction or something (Dr Who fanatics always seemed vastly overrepresented in political circles, for example, as well as science fiction fans more generally). Many Conservative activists of my youth saw membership of CUCA as both a way to lay claim to membership of a social stratum to which they aspired and a way to practice the dark arts of subterfuge and one-upmanship.
Utopian dreamer or retirement hobby, though, there is one thing on which everyone agrees: some politicians are just in it for the power. Whether it is the erotic thrill of being in charge of the parks of the London Borough of Wandsworth or the diplomatic machinery of the U.S. State Department, some folk are not driven by deep contemplation, pervasive reading, the nagging doubt attenuated by the knowledge that sins of omission are just as frightful as acting in error. The hoary old cliche that “politics is showbusiness for ugly people” is a cliche about the old and whore-y who often turn up on our TV screens resembling “the politician”from Central Casting. Some will attack you and throw mud for questioning their judgment on social media, others will preen on Question Time or Meet the Press, while some might even serve as Jacobean-inspired anti-heroes for the sheer honesty of their ambition. We probably all fall on a continuum. While I consider myself infinitely more sinned against than sinning, there is probably a little bit of Frank Underwood in all of us (and the televisual seduction by Claire is excentuated rather than undercut by her cunning). The definition of economics as “the allocation of scarce resources” might be coming under attack as the world around us changes, but politics remains the same: the art of locating and using power to some end. If we are not Machiavellians in ends, we are forced somewhat to be so by means.
Most politicians seem ready made to play this part, with talking points, sensible suits, and changeable opinions. While the more utopian political practitioners sometimes get canonized in retrospect, most members of the public, when focus-groupped, tend to apply adjectives describing the more cynical type: power-hungry, fake, and venal. TV shows like The Thick of It or Veep seem to reflect a reality that we all suspect exists in painful likeness. Like a kind of political Gresham’s Law, shit robotic politicians crowd out the ones with good intentions.
So, why, dear reader, does it surprise us when politicians act like politicians? Especially when the politicians in question boast personalities which would make them more likely to be at the whorehouse than the nunnery end of our spectrum? In a sometimes disablingly cynical world, with political scientists often using the most self-serving motivations for any political actor, why should we be surprised when politicians’ actions actually accord with what our abiding premises predict that they should do? Is there some well-hidden romantic who they have offended, even as we deny that we were ever so naive to nurture such a stowaway in our hearts?
So it is perhaps surprising when people profess to be so shocked when politicians do what is clearly in their self-interest, even if it isn’t clearly what they privately believe. Boris Johnson, the court jester of Court Cameron who the press insist on taking and treating seriously, coming out for Brexit was regarded as some surprising shock. But I had long speculated that someone would use Brexit’s popularity with the Tory grassroots to try and vault to the Tory leadership- and therefore Prime Minister- as presumptive heir George Osborne is bound to follow his patron and friend, David Cameron. Boris Johnson was popular with the public but lagged behind Osborne with Tory voters and Conservative MPs (indeed who would be the second MP to be shortlisted for the all-member ballot seemed highly contested), but now Boris seems the frontrunner. If Boris had backed “In”, Osborne would be a compelling favorite to be the next Prime Minister. Someone else- even Liam Fox or someone currently unsuspected- might have made a run. Instead, now Britain faces a future of Falstaff following Prince Hal in its highest elected office.
Boris backing Brexit was what game theorists call “a dominant strategy“. It doesn’t take a super-brainy electoral observer like a Lewis Baston to see that, if Boris wanted to be Prime Minister, he needed to play the only card he had to make it happen.
The same observation could be made for Chris Christie’s endorsement of The Donald. Christie flamed out of the Presidential race after New Hampshire. His approval ratings are underwater in his home state (making him dead man walking even if it were not a traditional Democratic state), he remains unpopular with a large number of Republicans (for shaking hands and shaking down Obama after Hurricane Sandy for his home state’s sake), and he spent his time on the campaign trail eviscerating the only establishment Republican who might have put him on the ticket. With Bridgegate hanging over him, a spot as Attorney-General was not likely either. So what’s an ambitious pol to do? Endorse the frontrunner whose popularity with the conservative, Southern grassroots you conspicuously lack. Gain either a spot on a Presidential ticket and be a bridge between the new and the old Republican party either now or in 2020, and inherit the mantle of ‘Trumpism’ and break out of the political cul-de-sac Christie had driven himself into. Prospect theory states that Christie should have been very risk tolerant. So perhaps it is worth putting up with some “wordless screaming” while daydreaming of a political future and not just a past. Hey, it might not work but, if you were simply looking at ambition, wouldn’t you try?
My first memory of such a political “pact with the devil” was the Tory leadership election of 1997. Ken Clarke- jazz enthusiast, cigar smoker, Notts County watcher, bon vivant- was the moderate Tory with no seeming way past Thatcherite foetus-man William Hague. Clarke was hamstrung by being pro-European in a party that wanted none of that kind of thing. Although leading after two rounds of balloting, John Redwood’s hardcore eurosceptics would likely go to then-eurosceptic William Hague if Clarke did nothing. So he did the only thing he could do: offer Redwood a deal and see how many of his supporters would follow his lead. The answer? Not many. At least he tried, eh?
But what is it about the “shock” when politicians doing politician-y things? My guess is that BoJo, Clarke and Christie all had very studied personas in being unstudied. Blokey, truth-telling, and someone you’d have a beer with, they tricked the person at home into thinking that they were not robotic political utility-maximizers but instead actual human beings. Perhaps it was a shock to many to find that they were just as ideologically unmoored, ambitious, and self-regarding as anyone else. Indeed, in the case of all three, we could make a reasonable argument that they were even more so. To have the power of introspection to create such an image before jettisoning it when inconvenient suggests a level of calculation beyond most politicians. Their persona wasn’t a defensive move to cover up what really lies beneath, like so many Tories who go full Talented Mr Ripley, but a positive attempt to play the posh fool, be a likable everyman, or be the truth-telling swashbuckler in a corrupt land (i.e. accentuate actual parts of their personality for political benefit rather than making it out of whole cloth). No one suggests that Boris or Ken or Chris Christie gave up these qualities that gained them popularity, just that it didn’t stop them from being politicians deep down. Just as most people don’t regard politicians as being like them (indeed most of the politicians I know personally are weird), perhaps there was also the assumption that politicians who were not like other politicians must be more like us. Until they proved not to be.
However, I am open to other theories! I am aware that I have three conservatives on this list. Is this my underlying bias coming out? Or does the conservative “temperament” rather than “ideology” make these political contortions more possible? When do these deals get made? And why do we insist on being shocked? Any other great examples we could name? Answers on a postcard…