Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Underestimating Politics

Two men are riding high right now, two men who have consistently been underestimated by political pundits, journalists and their opponents.

The first of these is George W. Bush. With the strong showing by Republican candidates in the resent mid-term elections, Bush now has a relatively supportive Congress on his side, which will ultimately lead to a more supportive judiciary. This isn’t to say that he will have free sailing from here on in. The Republican hold on the Senate remains relatively slight, the Democrats can still filibuster and compromise will be needed on some issues. But no one can deny that the mid-term elections were an impressive victory for Bush. In many races, it appears that Bush’s own popularity combined with his intense campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates, turned close races to the Republican ticket.

Oddly enough, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Democrats believed that the slowdown in the economy was more important to most Americans than the war on terror, and that the Republicans were weak on this score. To their surprise, last Tuesday demonstrated quite the contrary. As various commentators have pointed out, the Republicans garnered between 52 and 53% of the vote in House, Senate and gubernatorial races. Suddenly, the Republicans, with George Bush in the lead, are the majority party. And just as suddenly, the Shrub from Texas has pulled off a feat unprecedented since the days of FDR.

But Bush’s domestic win isn’t his only success. Internationally, the Bush administration has pushed a hard-line on Iraq that has forced both the UN and Saddam Hussein to take seriously the threat of force on the part of the US. Just today we hear that Iraq has agreed to the readmission of UN weapons inspectors. Without any doubt this is something that would not have happened if the US were not threatening an immediate invasion. Only American force has been able to rescue whatever dignity still remains to the United Nations. And apart from the likelihood or wisdom of an actual invasion, the point remains: Bush has secured himself an international victory.

And my second choice for surprise success is Jacques Chirac, the President of France. Not unlike Bush, Chirac won a presidential election earlier this year that was, to say the least, an anomaly. In the first round of the presidential election Chirac secured a mere 20% of the vote – a dismal showing for a sitting president. Fortunately for Chirac, second place went not to the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, but to the so-called far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen (I use the term “so-called” since this is how the European press describes people like Le Pen, though the term is rather pointless). This allowed Chirac to cast himself as the great defender of the Republic, under threat from a subversive fascist.

Since that time, Chirac has gone from victory to victory. The subsequent parliamentary elections saw his right of centre alliance win a substantial majority in the National Assembly. But perhaps most important for his political standing has been the very thing that has also made Bush an international success: the debate over what to do about Iraq. This might strike the reader as an odd statement considering that the US and France have seemed to be on opposite sides on the issue of Saddam Hussein. The Americans, backed by Tony Blair, wanted a strong stance against Iraq including the immediate threat of invasion should Saddam fail to comply fully with the UN resolution. France, on the other hand, was pushing for a diplomatic solution, including the separation of talk of invasion from any resolution concerning UN weapons inspectors. To the outside observer, it appeared that France and the US were at loggerheads. And indeed, to commentators in Europe and the US, both from the right and the left, this was how things were interpreted.

Though I may be alone here, I think this interpretation is wrong. In fact, I think that France and the US were never as opposed as the commentators believed. In fact, I would argue that France and the US, whatever their differences, remain significant allies, driven by many of the same principles and pursuing much the same agenda. Further, I believe most commentators have missed this for the same reason they’ve underestimated the surprising strengths of both Bush and Chirac: politics.

What do I mean? Well, I mean simply that we have underestimated the importance of politics as a natural element in human life along with its expression in those unique men and women who are drawn to this most human of endeavors. We commentators, so easily drawn to cynical assessments of politicians, often fail to see the significance of the particularly political virtues in the lives of those engaged in politics. When we look closely at both Bush and Chirac we see two men engaged in a struggle to rule. Of course, in our democratic age, the contest for rule is rarely emphasized, and yet it surely is one of the driving forces pushing political actors to enter the arena in the first place. For we moderns, the most disturbing thing about ruling is that it means someone, in this case the defeated, are excluded. In other words, politics involves a certain degree of exclusion.

Under the modern dispensation, the source of exclusivity is the nation, and in this regard, the most salient examples of modern democratic nations are Britain, the United State and France. These three nations, more than almost any others (I would include Israel among the foremost examples of nations today) have perfected the notion of the democratic nation, which despite their openness to all humanity (think of the Statue of Liberty, the British Empire and the “Pays des droits de l’homme”) are constituted by exclusive ideas regarding what it means to be American, British or French. It is precisely by fostering and appealing to these political expressions of human particularity that both Bush and Chirac have made a name for themselves on the domestic and international stages.

Unfortunately political commentators, both liberal and conservative, tend to underestimate this important element. Liberals, both in Europe and the US, have fawned over the French when they take the side of internationalism and pander to leftist dictators, but this is more an expression of universalist utopianism than respect for the French nation. Similarly, though with less disdain for the nation, conservatives in the US laud Bush for appealing to American patriotism, but they too quickly forget that there is also French patriotism. Granted, one can question the power of contemporary French patriotism, but in my experience, there is still a fundamental French pride that easily can outlive the foolishness of a kind of French decadence common among intellectuals.

If we take the political as our true guide then, we find that the recent successes of both Bush and Chirac are not really all that surprising. Both men have tapped into that aspect of human life that requires that we connect ourselves to a larger whole, but a whole that reflects individual human freedom and virtue precisely because it includes some and excludes others. Moreover, the political approach allows us to understand how Bush and Chirac, in their respective countries, have been defending the political domain by acting on behalf of the interests of their own nations.

But what of the interest of nations? One could argue that nations acting merely according to their own interests are threats to humanity in general. Certainly we can raise objections to France’s accommodation to the Iraqis based upon economic considerations abroad and fear of Muslim retaliation on its own soil. However, I would suggest that this approach is too narrowly focused. The nation itself is a western concept born of notions of civilization common to both France and the US. Acting on behalf of the nation is an expression of western civilization. And, to the extent that the nation embodies a political understanding of man, it is equally an expression of what is common to all humans.

Thus, one could argue that, to the extent that Bush and Chirac have acted on behalf of their nations, incarnating national aspirations in their own administrations, they have been pursuing the same goal. And in this regard, we see today that the US and France reached a consensus on the UN resolution dealing with Iraq. This itself is testament to both the resilience and the common bonds that underlie the western world.

As long as the western world remains committed to the political, it will similarly remain committed to defending western civilization. The instant it rejects this inheritance it will succumb to those determined to destroy it. That Chirac and Bush are today riding high, suggests the inheritance has not been forgotten.


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