On practising politics

November 16, 2020 08:51
Photo: Reuters

As a student and scholar of political science, I had – for a very long period of time (relative to my age, that is) – found it only natural that I pontificated and mused about political processes, perched atop a pedestal. Politics is simple – it is merely the application of theories, through rigorous and careful calculation, to real-life contexts. Unfamiliar with how it’s going to play out? That’s alright, there’s modelling, there’s also statistics and quantitative analysis: all is well.

Real politics isn’t theory. Realpolitik isn’t kind. It lacks the innate cogency and predictability that we enjoy ascribing to theoretical frameworks. It is amoral: there aren’t any ‘bad guys’, ‘good guys’, ‘good’, or ‘evil’. It is also counter-intuitive: the most surprising results often turn out to be the most routine outcomes. It is anodyne at its core, filled to the brim by inane careerists and hacks who are more bent on securing self-interested gains than servicing the so-called public. Those who enter into politics – bushy-eyed and with a romanticised worldview that is clearly at odds with reality – inevitably find themselves disillusioned and jaded by the process.

Yet does this mean that we give up? Does that imply that we ought to forego our ideals, our commitments, and simply go with the flow? Ought we succumb to the popular whims and populist fantasies that constitute our fragmented polis, or can we stand – tall and proud – for the right path to take, for the right speech to make? There’s no definite answer – it all comes down to individual perseverance, as much as it is about fate (both tempting and withstanding it).

Gallileo was termed a ‘freak’ for challenging the orthodox dogma of Aristotelian cosmology. Malcolm X was chastised for being an ostensible terrorist as he stood up for the rights of African-Americans. Emily Davison threw herself under a horse in the struggle for women’s right to vote. These folks are venerated and remembered for their intrepidity – for their willingness to defy and stand up against hegemony when it manifested.

But there are also the pragmatists: the reformists who sought to make a difference through searching for compromise and gradualist changes. Booker Washington; Lyndon B Johnson; Nelson Mandela. Many amongst them fail and have failed – they fail due to the inevitable constraints that one encounters when one decides to work within the existing rules; they fail due to the inherent volatility within non-reformist reform; they fail because of the reckless, impetuous backlash they receive from the public. This neither eliminates the need and case for trying, nor the respectability of the politics they preach and adopt.

Politics is inherently dirty, and requires giving and taking. The best politicians aren’t those who never concede – but are instead those who concede without giving off the impression of having conceded. Contra Weber, I’d posit that true politicians must also prioritise their ethics of responsibility over their ethics of moral convictions. Moral prudishness may render one feeling more glamorous or content with one’s standing, yet is intrinsically self-defeating: in seeking to keep one’s hands ‘clean’, one dyes them crimson with the ink of one’s sanctimony.

What the world needs more of today is – on the contrary to popular belief – politicians. More politicians who can broker deals and facilitate dialogue. More politicians who can listen and empathise. More politicians who are not propelled by narrow-mindedness and ulterior motives. More politicians who stand for what is right and against what is wrong, within reasonable and feasible limits. More politicians to speak for the subaltern, for those who cannot speak – not today, not ever.

Fewer hacks. Fewer partisan hacks who grand-stand for self-aggrandisement. Fewer political careerists who prioritise climbing the greasy ladder over their own moral commitments. Fewer folks driven by the need to perform in front of the flashing camera lights, to make speeches filled to the brim with neither tenable nor desirable promises. Fewer parrots or talkers. More thinkers and doers.

The practice of politics is treacherous. It loses one more friends – than one could ever make. It is easy and tempting to lose oneself as one gets sucked into the swirling downward spirals; that push one to race to the bottom. It could be lonely, at times; it could be difficult, at others. Yet for those who are impassioned about and committed to politics to forsake the right path, merely because it is calamitous, would be irresponsible. Politics isn’t about pleasing everyone – it’s about bringing together everyone who is willing, to bring about a positive change for all; irrespective of partisan or political orientation, regardless of where one stands. Politicians ought to serve more than just their constituents – for they are uniquely tasked with the somewhat sacrosanct, somewhat mundane task, of governing. It is towards governance that politicians should strive.

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Assistant Professor, HKU