If you are in politics or public life, you probably had some moment of spine-tingling transcendence. Maybe you read the Declaration of Independence or watched the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop sermon, or read Nelson Mandela’s 1964 speech from the dock.
Suddenly, your imagination was inflamed beyond its normal scope. You were enveloped by this epic sense that public life could be truly heroic. The people who issue these statements brought their lives to a glorious point, pledging their sacred honor, offering to sacrifice their lives for some public mission.
You got into public life inspired by something like that. But how do you execute that sort of vision? How do you translate the poetry of high aspiration into the prose of effective governance? This is the common problem today. Most people go into public life for the right reasons, but government doesn’t work. The quality of the people is high, but the quality of leadership is low.
I’d suggest three responses.
First, apprentice yourself to a master craftsman. Find yourself a modern version of Ted Kennedy cobbling together a Senate majority. Find yourself some silent backstage official, who knows how to slide ideas through the bureaucracy. Glue yourself to that person in order to learn the craft of governance.
Schools are good at transmitting what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge. This is the sort of knowledge that can be expressed in rules and put down in books — like the recipes in a cookbook.
But craftsmen possess and transmit practical knowledge. This sort of knowledge, Oakeshott says, exists only in use. It cannot be taught, only imparted by imitation and experience. It’s knowing when to depart from the cookbook; how much, when running a meeting, to let the conversation flow and how much to rein it in.
Practical knowledge is hard to see, but it is embedded in traditions of behavior. It is embedded in the lives of older legislators and public servants, and it is passed down by imitation to the younger ones. This craft of governing well has been forsaken and disrespected, but you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.
Second, take a reality bath. Go off and become a stranger in a strange land. Go off to some alien part of this country or the world. Immerse yourself in the habits and daily patterns of that existence and stay there long enough to get acculturated. Stay there long enough so that you forget the herd mentality of our partisan culture.
When you return home, you will look at your own place with foreign eyes. You’ll see the contours of your own reality more clearly. When you return to native ground, you’re more likely to possess the sort of perceptiveness that Isaiah Berlin says is the basis of political judgment.
This sort of wisdom consists of “a special sensitiveness to the contours of the circumstances in which we happen to be placed; it is a capacity for living without falling foul of some permanent condition or factor which cannot be either altered, or even fully described.” This wisdom is based on a tactile awareness of your country and its people — what they want, how they react. You don’t think this awareness. You feel it. You experience a visceral oneness with culture and circumstance — the smell of the street, tinges of anger and hope and aspiration. The irony is that you are more likely to come into union with your own home culture after you have been away from it. You have to walk away from the partisan tunnel vision to see how things really are.
Finally, close off your options. People in public life live in a beckoning world. They have an array of opportunities. They naturally want to keep all their options open. The shrewd strategists tell them to make a series of tepid commitments to see what pans out. Hedge your bets. Play it smart.
But the shrewd strategy leads to impotence. You spread yourself thin. You dissipate your energies and never put full force behind any cause. You make your own trivial career the object of your attention, not the vision that inspired you in the first place.
The public official who does this leaves no mark. Only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes. Only the person who has burned the ships and committed to one issue has the courage to cast aside the advice of the strategists and actually push through change.
We live in a nation of good people and ineffective government. I don’t know if these tactics will improve the quality of the nation’s leadership, but something has to.