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Roman Bust

“They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or a military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore, to be got over with. It is a way of life. It is the life of a domesticated political and social creature who is born with a love for public life, with a desire for honor, with a feeling for his fellows; and it lasts as long as need be.

It is not simply office holding, not just keeping your place, not just raising your voice from the floor, not just ranting on the rostrum with speeches and motions; which is what many people think politics is; just as they think of course you are a philosopher if you sit in a chair and lecture, or if you are able to carry through a dispute over a book. The even and consistent, day in day out, work and practice of both politics and philosophy escape them.

Politics and philosophy are alike. Socrates neither set out benches for his students, nor sat on a platform, nor set hours for his lectures. He was philosophizing all the time — while he was joking, while he was drinking, while he was soldiering, whenever he met you on the street, and in the end when he was in prison and drinking the poison. He was the first to show that all your life, all the time, in everything you do, whatever you are doing, is the time for philosophy. And so also it is of politics.”


From Plutarch’s Lives, written in the first century.

I was invited by my professor and friend Jeffry Burnam to sit in last night on a discussion between former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and a small group of Georgetown graduate students.

Our conversation centered mostly on healthcare, though it was prefaced by Daschle’s 20-or-so-minute rundown of the modern history of the U.S. senate, specifically its recent drift towards sectarianism — what I call the centrifugal force of the new century. While basic, Daschle’s summary of this trend as well as its causes was as cogent and as elegantly phrased as any I have heard. It began with a sociological survey à la Bill Bishop (The Big Sort) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), then moved on to the electoral and procedural questions raised by Morris P. Fiorina (Culture War?), Frances Lee (Beyond Ideology), and David Mayhew (Congress: The Electoral Connection), among others. Despite the breadth and depth of these issues, Daschle barely missed a word in 20 minutes.

Moreover Daschle has a way of orienting himself to people, especially students, in a manner that is simultaneously distinguished and disarming. Through his trademark red-rimmed specs, more befitting a painter than a politician, Daschle’s eyes alighted patiently on each student at the table as he strung together sharp responses to the variety of questions asked over almost three hours. I used to record meetings like this, back when I was a student. I wish I’d done so last night.

I say this to point out that while you may or may not agree with my characterization of this particular politician, politics itself is not something only done by those officials who sit in the Capital (or more like fundraise in their home districts, given that — as Daschle pointed out — the Senate is only in session 109 days this year: ~9 days of work/month). Instead, the Greek conception of public service and public policy is ultimately the correct one; as John F. Kennedy remarked in 1960, while reflecting on the roots of his interest in government, “I saw how ideally politics filled the Greek definition of happiness — ‘a full use of your powers along lines of excellence.'” It is, properly conceived, the furthest thing from a profession.

At the start of his talk, Daschle said that, as a legislator, he made decisions based on three considerations: What do my constituents want? What do I think is right? And what do the experts tell me? He then asked the class to imagine the entire United States population, all 310 million of us, in a giant football stadium — all voicing our particular proposed solutions to what we see as the nation’s problems. The former Majority Leader equated this with the current political landscape in the United States: everyone involved to some extent, though some sitting closer to the playing field than others. While this arrangement seems imperfect, messy, even repellent, he argued, it’s far superior to those states in which conversation is stifled, monopolized — or worse, silenced.

Tom Daschle