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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Goodbye "Left-Wing Conservative", Hello "Anti-Politics"!

I am more skeptical about politics than ever. And more disgusted with ideology than ever.

The recent government shutdown put me over the edge.

The timeless truth is that we are social animals, and thrive best in some sort of tribe or other organization. And in every tribe, there are the leaders, and the led.  This is inevitable.

I used to think that the goal in politics was to put a party in place who would enact a specific agenda, and that I should see myself as a foot-soldier in that fight, even if all I was doing was arguing and debating with others, and not actually putting some skin in the game by volunteering for a campaign.

To challenge my thinking on this topic, for a while in this blog I stumbled along with this "Left-Wing Conservative" idea? Why? Why be conflicted? Why have to call myself anything?

Maybe I, and we,  need is to take a colder, realistic, and more grounded look at our political system. Perhaps what we need is an "Anti-Politics".

I got this "Anti-Politics" term from Eastern European writer George Konrad. In the midst of the Cold War struggle between the West and the Soviet Union,  which had the world constantly poised on the brink of World War Three, Konrad described the goal of "Anti-Politics" to  "limit, diffuse and demystify" state power. For him, Anti-Politics was based in not power, but skepticism - "dialectical, ironic and critical of ideology.”

Konrad said "Let the government stay on top. We will live our own lives beneath it”. By this Konrad did not suggest we should be complacent or give up on representative democracy (democracy having not yet been realized in thawing but still Communist 1980's Hungary). Rather, he suggested that the goal of a democracy was to "protect society from the volatile fusion of a grand idea with political power", to carve out areas of “de-statification”, and have government involved in only those things that support the most basic infrastructure of day to day life, and to otherwise rely on each other for joy and meaning in life. To do otherwise, for Konrad, was to strike a devil's bargain.

This Anti-Politics perspective aligns with some reading I've done on systems theory, conversations I have had with actual politicians and campaign managers, and an excellent book by Judge Richard Posner, "Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy".

As a result,  I've come to believe that the most essential function of democracy is not to establish "heaven on earth", but rather the non-violent, peaceful selection and replacement of leaders.

Not the stuff of soaring rhetoric, but when you consider how many countries there are where change of leadership is determined by who has power over the army or the intelligence services, the importance of freedom of speech and the right to vote cannot be overemphasized. When democracy works best, we are able to keep our "best and brightest" scheming wheeler-dealers on their toes, with good policy being a side effect of same.

And when leaders are focused on solving practical problems, rather than ideology, things get done.

With apologies to Orson Welles as Harry Lime in "The Third Man", in the 20th Century we had politicians up to their ears in graft, back-room deals, and horse-trading, but they gave us roads, bridges, dams, Social Security, Medicare, The Civil Rights Act, defeated Hitler and the Soviet Union, and put man on the moon. In the 21st Century we have ideologically pure, incorruptible politicians to whom compromise is a sin. And what have they given us? The soundbite.

As Lincoln said “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do at all, or can not so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.”

So what do we really need to have done? And how do we make sure our leaders do it? And what can we do better ourselves?

I don't know where I am going with this approach. Hopefully I will have something fresh to say.

To be continued.


  1. This is a very thoughtful entry, Doc. I agree that it's not easy to know where to go from here, but I suggest starting with the yellow journalists of the media, who I consider to be the enablers of the political idealogues. I think the average American leadership consumer needs to check with the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Bloomberg on the same story so that he/she can extrapolate where the truth lies.

  2. Thanks Ken - totally agree with your guidance to get information from multiple sources. I do, however, have an aversion to using a "consumer" metaphor, with its suggestion of "meet every need, the customer is always right,etc" versus "citizen", which highlights the mutual responsibility of leader and led...