The Human Condition:

The Art of the Possible – December 14, 2014


German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is quoted as saying, “Politics is the art of the possible.” He also said, “Politics is not an exact science.” I subscribe to those notions.

In any group—clan, tribe, municipality, state, nation, or empire—you will find people having different ideals and needs, holding to different values and opinions, following different paradigms, and drawing upon different bases of information. Whether your system of government is a pure plebiscite democracy like the ancient Greek city-states, a republic like ancient Rome, a monarchy or dictatorship with some kind of council of nobles or ministers if not a full-blown parliament, or even an absolute autocracy supported by a cabinet of hand-picked bureaucrats—at some point politics will enter the picture. People will have different ways of doing things and form into groups of like mind.

Even if the dictator or autocrat has stated his wishes and commands in excruciating detail, he must eventually leave them to his administrators for execution. In any endeavor larger than fetching the king or tsar a cup of tea, those supporters will have to interpret the commands, decide how to carry them out, and make sensible decisions when questions and conflicts arise. Politics is inevitable, because nothing having to do with human beings is ever simple and obvious. And the more human brains and voices that are involved in any question, the more complex it becomes.

Sometimes—rarely, but it happens—one group of like mind will be so strong that its values, paradigm, or interpretation of the information at hand is paramount, and its members have the power to override all discussion and work their will. But if the group is too large, that consensus will not last for long. Even the most monolithic authority base quickly develops its own splinter groups, offshoots, and intent contrarians arguing on the most closely held of questions. Ask the Muslims about Sunnis and Shiites. Ask the old Russian Social-Democrats about Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The party in power always has its internal feuds.

And when monolithic power breaks down, the result is politics.1

Politics is all about negotiation and compromise. Lacking the power to force your will, you must resort to working with your opponents, bartering concessions for cooperation, giving in order to get. It’s a messy business, because you don’t know, can’t know, ahead of time, what positions your opposition will value most, or be willing to trade for, or could care less about surrendering. Politics is that “inexact science,” because every negotiation is different, as different as the people sitting around the table. Politics is also the “art of the possible,” because until you sit down to deal, you don’t know what you can actually achieve.

The older generation—the ones, at least, who have survived and now thrive—knows this. They have fought their battles and, having lost about as often as they’ve won, are prepared to make the best bargain they can. It’s the young and idealistic who are fixated upon their ideals, who are absolute in their loyalty to the current paradigm, who view concession as capitulation, who vow never to give up, never to surrender.

We’re facing that situation today in the United States. The two parties, Democratic and Republican alike, have both—but at different times in the last couple of decades and under different circumstances—fallen prey to the opinions and ideals of their extreme wings.2 They have both tried to force their centrists, their “squishy middle,” into lockstep with their most extreme policies. And in both cases, the spell of pure thought and lofty ideals über alles has worked for a while, and the party has wielded power in an almost dreamlike state.

But then reality returns, as it always does, as it must, because the people of a clan, a nation, or an empire are not all of one mind. And the essence of what consensual mind does emerge is never at either extreme of the political spectrum of the day, but instead somewhere in the middle. That’s why they call it “the middle.”

Any politician or political party which does not understand this and tries to impose their programs by conducting one-sided votes, issuing executive orders, and making regulations beyond the scope of the legislative mandate is acting like a naïve child. Such a politician reveals him- or herself as either an inexperienced neophyte or someone who has confused winning an election with staging a revolution.3 It may feel good to remain pure of heart and wedded to your ideals, but it’s not the way to remain in power long.

But it sometimes happens. I can think of a few cases—the Nazis under Hitler, the Soviets under Stalin—where a clique at the top maintained both a relatively pure ideal and their own vision of power. But these examples do not bear repeating, because their methods included harsh repression, purges and cleansings, scapegoating, prison camps, and—when all else failed—a resort to war to steel the population and conceal the government’s true purposes under the flag of patriotism. And in the end those systems collapsed anyway, causing widespread confusion and misery. Not, in my opinion, the way to go.

So, at the end of the day, at the end of all your speeches and campaigning, you have to sit down and deal with your fiercest opponents and your squishy middle. It’s inexact, it’s messy, but in a universe of competing values and ideals, it’s the only sensible way to govern.

1. Or war, which is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” That’s a quote from Carl von Clausewitz, another German political theoretician.

2. I have a litmus test for finding those extremities: simply ask someone if there is a difference between the two parties. If he or she can see no difference, then that person is operating from a paradigm far to the left or right of where the two parties rub shoulders.

3. So, I’ll reveal my conservative bias here. The extreme left wing of the Democratic party has, in my view, never weaned itself from the revolutionary politics to which its now aging, Baby Boomer members pledged themselves the heyday of the 1960s. They self-identified with guerrilla opposition groups in Cuba and Vietnam, and with underground, iconoclastic movements within the industrialized West. They became intent on bringing down the monolithic power of the “military-industrial complex,” on opposing “the man,” and on achieving an impossibly utopian state of being. Such dreams and ideals make one an inspiring advocate for a radical viewpoint but a poor candidate for actually taking power, resolving crises, and governing successfully. Every revolution that ever succeeded has had to go through a period of struggle where power-holding realists had to contain and eventually eliminate the revolutionary idealists. Ask Leon Trotsky. Ask T. E. Lawrence.