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What is True Political Wisdom? A Primer for the 2012 Election

We want our leaders to exercise political wisdom. At least, we do if we think about it. Does anybody really desire unwise leaders? But what do we mean by political wisdom? What virtues and values does a wise leader possess? The present essay, condensed from a much longer footnoted essay, attempts to answer these questions. It does so partly by looking at what past thinkers, starting with Aristotle, have said about political wisdom.

The Greek philosopher believed that political wisdom was one type of practical wisdom (phronesis) or prudence and that the goal of politics should be the happiness or wellbeing (eudaimonia) of society, what we might label the common good. Such happiness required people to live according to reason and be virtuous. He thought that “the true student of politics ... is thought to have studied virtue above all things.” Among the virtues he identifies or suggests are “moral virtues” such as courage, temperance, justice, self-discipline, moderation, gentleness, modesty, humility, generosity, friendliness, truthfulness, humor, and honesty. But to exercise them properly he thought the “intellectual virtue” of practical wisdom was necessary. “The work of man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as with moral virtue; for virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.”

Since the end of practical wisdom is some type of action, skills as well as virtues are necessary for its realization. For a president, for example, being an effective communicator and a good judge of people so as to select effective cabinet and staff members are important skills to possess. But here our emphasis will be on the virtues and values a president should possess.

Many later political theorists agreed with Aristotle regarding the goal of politics and the connection of virtue and political wisdom. In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington expressed the belief that it was “substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government” and hoped that future government actions “be stamped with wisdom and virtue.” Thomas Jefferson stated that “happiness [is] the aim of life. Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.” The twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote: According to the nature of things, the end of politics is the common good of a united people. ... This common good consists of the good life—that is, a life conformable to the essential exigencies and the essential dignity of human nature, a life both morally straight and happy.”

 In the remainder of this essay I shall identify the following virtues and values that seem especially important for exercising political wisdom in today’s world: the proper mix of realism and idealism, compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, and courage. Finally, I will argue that practical wisdom or prudence is necessary in order to properly balance, prioritize, and fit together these virtues and values in any particular situation so as to achieve the greatest good.

Realism and Idealism. If presidents wish to deal with problems realistically and effectively, they must acknowledge the truth of their existence. Perhaps the most obvious present example is the role of humans in heightening global warming and climate change. To deny this reality for political or other reasons is simply unwise. As Al Gore wrote in his 2007 book The Assault on Reason, “Americans in both parties should insist on the reestablishment of respect for the rule of reason. The climate crisis, in particular, should cause us to reject and transcend ideologically based distortions of the best available scientific evidence.”

Three of the twentieth-century’s most prominent commentators on political wisdom—Maritain, Isaiah Berlin, and Reinhold Niebuhr—stressed the necessity of an ethical realism when approaching political problems.

Maritain wrote:

“[E]thics and politics are about the real, existing world, and in this existing world humans are not purely rational agents but, rather, fallen creatures who are potentially redeemed by grace. ... To proceed in merely philosophical categories about ethics and politics would be merely utopian; one must deal with real, existing creatures locked in the actual historical drama of sin and grace.”

In his essay “On Political Judgment,” Berlin stated that political wisdom involves “an acute sense of what fits with what, what springs from what, what leads to what; how things seem to vary to different observers, what the effect of such experience upon them may be; what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces.” To Berlin it was the “concrete situation” that mattered, and his enemy was any utopianism that failed to acknowledge the plurality and variety of human existence. “Obviously what matters is to understand a particular situation in its full uniqueness, the particular men and events and dangers, the particular hopes and fears which are actively at work in a particular place at a particular time.” To Berlin, any action that sacrificed human beings today for some utopian future dreams was unethical.

In a 1932 essay, “Moralists and Politics,” the Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr faulted moralists who failed to see “the limits of morality in politics.” He went on to say that “there is no political realism in all this [unrealistic] moralism. It does not deal with the fact that human groups, classes, nations, and races are selfish, whatever may be the moral idealism of individual members within the groups.” He also called for a mixture of realism and idealism and warned that if it was “not achieved, sentimentalists and cynics will continue to guide our generation to disaster.”

In crafting a foreign policy, Niebuhr recommended that policymakers mix idealism with realism.  In their Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role (2006), Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman advocate an idealistic realism of the type championed by Niebuhr and two other political theorists, George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, and maintain that all three men “shared a belief in the values of modesty, prudence, moderation, and tolerance, leading in practical terms to a preference for negotiation over violence whenever possible, and a belief in peace as the necessary basis for human progress.”

Compassion and Empathy. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush stressed “compassionate conservatism” and faith-based programs as a means of furthering it. Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science, classics, and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, writes of it as Bush’s “Defining Idea,” but one that history (especially the events of 9/11) diverted him from implementing. Recognizing that traditionally “liberals are the party of compassion, and have been at least since the New Deal,” Orwin sketches the influence on Bush of such books as Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, Renewing American Compassion, and Compassionate Conservatism. Olasky argued that private individuals and organizations, especially Christian churches, had a responsibility to care for the poor and that they could do it more effectively than government welfare programs.

Like compassion, empathy is another value important for exercising political wisdom. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote:

A sense of empathy ... is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes. ... I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.

At present, some conservatives recognize that compassion (and empathy) are important, but can be realized more effectively by non-governmental actions. After I wrote an essay stating that Florida Governor Rick Scott displayed little compassion and empathy in his February 2010 budget proposal, one commenter countered:

Compassion and empathy are admirable and praiseworthy personal and social values, but they are generally destructive and immoral political values. In order to implement your compassion and empathy politically, you always take by force what is not yours from some people, in order to give to those other people who are the object of your empathy. That taking by force is evil and immoral, no matter how noble you believe your social goals to be.

Humility. In mid-2003, Time columnist Joe Klein wrote, “Bush promised a foreign policy of humility and a domestic policy of compassion. He has given us a foreign policy of arrogance and a domestic policy that is cynical, myopic and cruel.” Whether manifested in domestic or foreign policy, humility is characteristic of wise governments, as arrogance is of unwise ones.

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report in April 2009, historian Richard Beeman was asked about his book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of America’s Constitution, and why President Obama should read it. Beeman responded, “If one reads this book, one gets a better sense not only of the humility but of the fundamental uncertainty that these guys in the Constitutional Convention had as they went about crafting this government.” He also hoped that “he [Obama] would be somewhat humble, just as the founding fathers were, in developing his own views on how the Constitution should be interpreted.”

In their Ethical Realism, Lieven and Hulsman stress the emphasis that Niebuhr, Kennan, and Morgenthau, placed on nations acting with “a sense of humility.” In his 1966 book The Arrogance of Power Arkansas Senator William Fulbright expressed the fear that the United States was displaying arrogance abroad, especially in Vietnam. On March 19, 2003, the day the United States began its invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of the Senate and a past colleague of Fulbright, once again criticized the U. S. arrogance displayed toward Iraq. In a 2008 book, Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power, scholar Dale R. Herspring, a conservative Republican, criticizes President Bush’s secretary of defense for his arrogance, which undermined both his Iraq efforts and his overall leadership.

In recent years, political humility has also become scarce in Congress. As Democratic Congressman David Price (NC) observed in late 2005, “humility is out of fashion these days. Political leaders, advocates, and pundits often display an in-your-face assertiveness, seeming to equate uncertainty or even reflectiveness with weakness and a lack of moral fiber.” In November 2010, Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, wrote, “Surely no professional group has a weaker claim to that virtue [humility] than today’s divided, self-righteous, and spin-savvy politicians.

Tolerance and Compromise. Closely connected to humility is tolerance. Know-it-alls tend to be intolerant, while those willing to admit their own limitations are more likely to tolerate those of others and be open to their views. If one is humble and tolerant, one is also more willing to compromise. In “Citizen Ben’s 7 Great Virtues,” Walter Isaacson lists humility, compromise, tolerance, and humor as among the chief virtues of Benjamin Franklin, who thought it would be foolish for anyone to claim that "all the doctrines he holds are true and all he rejects are false.” Franklin embodied “one crucial virtue that was key to the gathering’s success: a belief in the nobility of compromise.”

One of Franklin’s contemporaries, Edmund Burke, who served in the British Parliament, agreed on the importance of compromise:

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.

In the twentieth century, some leading advocates of both the Right and the Left have written eloquently of the necessity of compromise. Russell Kirk, sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” emphasized it in an essay on the “Errors of Ideology.” He criticized ideological politics and contrasted it with prudential [practical-wisdom] politics:

Ideology makes political compromise impossible. ... The prudential politician, au contraire, is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises.

President John Kennedy was a contemporary of Kirk and one who described himself as “a practical liberal ... a pragmatic liberal.” In his Profiles in Courage, written while still a senator, he stated:

Legislation, under the democratic way of life and the Federal system of Government, requires compromise between the desires of each individual and group and those around them. Henry Clay ... said compromise was the cement that held the Union together. ... Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed, it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.

Humor and Creativity. Reinhold Niebuhr linked humor with humility when he stated that “humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence. People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to ‘stand off’ from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions.” He also indicated another way that humor might be helpful to politicians:

All men betray moods and affectations, conceits and idiosyncrasies, which could become the source of great annoyance to us if we took them too seriously. It is better to laugh at them. A sense of humor is indispensable to men of affairs who have the duty of organizing their fellowmen in common endeavors. It reduces the frictions of life and makes the foibles of men tolerable.

One politician who displayed both humor and wisdom was Abraham Lincoln. In The War Years, Carl Sandburg wrote “Lincoln was the first true humorist to occupy the White House. No other President of the United States had come to be identified, for good or bad, with a relish for the comic.” He and other Lincoln biographers have furnished numerous examples of his humor, often accompanied by his humility. For example, when he was accused of being two-faced during a Lincoln-Douglas debate, he responded: “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?” From Mark Twain to today’s Jon Stewart, political humor has helped us cope with our dissatisfaction with politics. Used effectively by politicians such as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, humor and wit have been an asset in increasing their popularity and dealings with the press, the general public, and other politicians.

When political leaders face great difficulties that seem to defy conventional solutions, creativity can be a great asset. Certainly one of the times of greatest peril for the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression when one-quarter of the work force was unemployed. Coming into office in early 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt possessed no clear roadmap to guide the country toward economic wellbeing. The New Deal he cobbled together required creativity. In an introduction to a new edition to one of his books on Roosevelt, one of his most prominent biographers, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote that “under the pressure of national crisis, FDR came into his own, combining eloquent idealism with astute realism. ... He was more interested in creativity than consensus. He did not mind competition and rivalry within his administration; he rather encouraged it.” As Schlesinger explained in his original text, “Competition in government, inadequately controlled, would mean anarchy. Adequately controlled, it could mean exceptional creativity. One consequence under the New Deal .... was a constant infusion of vitality and ideas.”

Temperance and Self-discipline. Aristotle believed that temperance (or moderation) and self-discipline should help us regulate “the appetitive faculty,” which deals with our emotions and desires: “The appetitive element in a temperate man should harmonize with the rational principle,” for “the temperate man craves for the things he ought, as he ought ... and when he ought.” Temperance was central because of his doctrine of "the mean," according to which moral virtues should achieve the mean between vices, for example, courage being the mean between rashness and cowardliness.

According to one commentator on Isaiah Berlin, the British thinker “suggests that even when we encounter policies that we feel confident in condemning ... we should do so moderately and humbly, while retaining doubts about our own program and resisting the lure of our own certitudes.” Berlin also thought that self-control was important. In his “Two Concepts of Liberty,” he wrote, “Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles may be—the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions....”

Passion and Courage. In his century-old essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber ​listed passion as one of the “three pre-eminent qualities ... decisive for the politician.” He wrote, “devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.” He was thinking of passion in the sense of passion for a cause like justice or freedom, but he thought this passion had to be balanced with the two other pre-eminent qualities: “a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.”

Aristotle perceived a connection between passion and courage. He thought that often “brave men also are passionate” and “act for honour’s sake, but passion aids them.” But “courage” aided by passion can only be true courage “if choice and motive be added.”

John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, written while he was still a senator, presented a thoughtful consideration of political courage, especially as manifested by eight senators from John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) to the Republican Robert Taft (1889-1953). Those he profiled were courageous for various reasons, but he thought that “national interest [the public good], rather than private or political gain, furnished the basic motivation” for the courageous actions he described. Moreover, for each senator “his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality ... was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval.” And just as their courage sprang from different sources, so too it took on different forms: “Some demonstrated courage through their unyielding devotion to absolute principle. Others demonstrated courage through their acceptance of compromise, through their advocacy of conciliation, through their willingness to replace conflict with co-operation.”

The Necessity of Judicious Balancing. In “On Political Judgment,” Isaiah Berlin begins by asking: “What is it to have good judgment in politics? What is it to be politically wise, or gifted, to be a political genius, or even to be no more than politically competent, to know how to get things done?” Part of the answer was judiciously balancing values. As one perceptive account of his thinking put it:

Berlin was more sensitive than many classical liberal or libertarian thinkers to the possibility that genuine liberty may conflict with genuine equality, or justice, or public order, or security, or efficiency, or happiness, and therefore must be balanced with, and sometimes sacrificed in favor of, other values. Berlin’s liberalism includes both a conservative or pragmatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining a balance between different values, and a social-democratic appreciation of the need to restrict liberty in some cases so as to promote equality and justice and protect the weak against victimization by the strong.

In his pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope Barack Obama recognizes that “finding the right balance between our competing values is difficult.” As an example, he notes “that even the wisest president and most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of our collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties.” He also mentions the need to balance freedom and individualism with “a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. ... the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.” How wisely he has balanced and realized such values and would be likely to do so if reelected will be the subject of a forthcoming essay.