Last night we read John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage in class.  It provoked a fascinating discussion.

The book, if you haven’t read it, is a compendium of stories (most of them pretty riveting) of U.S. Senators who, for the sake of principle, have bucked one or more of three political “pressures” that Kennedy identifies: (1) the need to be liked, (2) the need to be re-elected, (3) the pressures of your constituency and interest groups.

In Congress, John Quincy Adams, for instance, supported an embargo against Great Britain even though it would hurt the commercial interests of his home state, Massachusetts — triggering incredible fury among his friends.

JFK’s book is not about statesmen, per se — but at one point, he almost inadvertently uses the term in his concluding chapter, writing:

[W]hat then caused the statesmen in the preceding pages to act as they did?  It was not because they ‘loved the public better than themselves.’  On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves – because each one’s need to maintain his own respect for himself was more important to him than his popularity with others — because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity and courage was stronger than his desire to maintain his office — because his conscience, his personal standards of ethics, his integrity or morality, call it what you will — was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval — because his faith that his course was the best one, and would ultimately be vindicated, outweighed his fear of public reprisal.

Many of Kennedy’s stories fall into this vein — Senators who were so courageous they ended up resigning or retiring from office, effectively taking themselves out of politics, for the sake of principle.

This idea of statesmanship prompted a real question for the class.  Check out these two Ven diagrams.  The first one shows statesmanship (S) and courage (C) as separate but overlapping.  Some statesmen are courageous, some courageous leaders are statesmen, but there are also those who are courageous who are not statesmen and those who are statesman who are not courageous.


The class found the last idea in particular troubling.  Who would be an example of a statesmen who would not be courageous?  We talked about Plato’s idea that statesmen successfully “herd” and “weave” varying political interest and people, which raises the interesting idea that statesmen could be so good at politics they might not need to be courageous.

Now look at this Ven diagram (yes, I know it looks like a 5 year old drew it).  Here, statesmanship is a subset of courage.  All statesmen are courageous, but not all courageous leaders are statesmen, but there are no statesmen who are not courageous.


The students seemed to agree with this more — and I lean in this direction as well.  But Kennedy makes this a tough case, because if a necessary part of courage is that you might take yourself out of politics on principle — that does not seem to square with Plato’s idea of the statesman, always in control, always weaving those different human natures into a single cloth, always herding those bipeds.  It seems on Plato’s idea that the statesmen must always be in politics.

Well, as I told the class, for now, anyway, this remains a journey, not a destination.  Because there’s no systematic account of statesmanship, we are puzzling out these tough margin questions together.  The questions themselves, in some ways, are the answers.

University of Mary Washington

I’m delivering a public lecture at 4 p.m. at the University of Mary Washington today.  The title is “The Search for Statesmen: The Quest for Leadership in James Madison’s Democracy.”  You can see more here.

This will be the first time I’ve aired my ideas in front of such an audience.

Depending on how it goes, I will put the lecture up here. 

Wish me luck!

The Dream Senate

Fascinating discussion in Wednesday night’s class.  We read James Madison’s Federalist #10 and 51 — and 62 and 63. 

Of the Madison papers, #10 and #51 are hugely famous, #62 and #63 less so, because they just deal with the Senate, but they are fascinating troves in their own right of the Founders’ thinking about statesmanship.

Madison lays out seven characteristics of the people supposed to serve in the Senate.

1)  Responsibility: They would care about the common good and therefore provide a “salutary check on government”; because their concurrence would be required on all legislation, they would “double the security of the people,.”

2)  Firmness:  The “great firmness” of the Senators would protect the government from yielding to “the impulse of sudden and violent passions” and from being “seduced by factious leaders” (demagogues)

3)  Expertise:  The Senators would be more likely to understand the “objects and principles of legislation”—to be experts through the “study of the laws, the affairs, and the comprehensive interests” of the country.  This will come from the “heads rather than the hearts.”

4)  Steadiness: The longer duration of the Senators’ terms will reduce the “mutability in the public councils.”  This mutability hurts us in many respects, by damaging the “respect and confidence” of other countries, by making our internal laws incoherent, by lending an advantage to the sagacious” and the “enterprising,” and, most important, by undermining the “attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people toward the political system.  In all of these respects, because the Senate will serve longer and have better relationships and be wiser, they will have more prudence and avoid “unsteadiness and folly.” 

5)   Respect internationally.  Senators also would represent the United States more proudly before foreign powers

6)  Systemic national policy.  They would fix the “lack of a due responsibility in the government to the people” by ensuring that policies will be able to provide for “more than one or two links in a chain of measures” serving the public—in other words, the Senate will be able to enact and follow through on comprehensive national policies.

7)  Stopping stupidity.  Finally (and this seems to weave together #1, 2, 3, and 4, the Senate is supposed to be able to help the people against “their own temporary errors and delusions,” those moments when the people “stimulated by some irregular passion or some illicit advantage” are making the wrong choice. 

As one of the students pointed out, this described the appointed Senate — Senators chosen by the state legislatures, themselves wealthy white men at the time of the Founding.  (The Senate only became popularly elected during the reforms in the Jackson presidency).  So this is both aspirational and dated.  But still — these were the sorts of leaders that the Fathers wanted in the Senate.

This looks and smells like statesmanship.  The question is how these sorts of leaders can survive in politics today.

I asked the students what they would do to try and be this sort of leader in the Senate today.  Here were a few responses:

1)  Become independently wealthy in a professional field totally separate from politics

2)  Spend most of their time networking with experts and developing relationships with people who cared about the common good

3)  Focus relentlessly on constituent service, on helping the people who sent you to the Senate

4)  Focus on mastering the internal workings of the Senate

Thoughtful thoughts….

On Tap Tonight

In the wake of last night’s State of the Union speech, a smorgasbord in class tonight on statesmanship.  We’re reading:

A chapter from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America titled, “Why One FInds So Many Ambitious Men in the United States and So Few Great Ambitions.”

Four of James Madison’s Federalist Papers — not just the famous #10 (about factions) and #51 (about checks and balances and an extended republic), but #62 and #63, which are about the U.S. Senate as the house for the country’s statesmen.

Finally, a relatively new book by Princeton political theorist Nan Keohane titled Thinking about LeadershipKeohane is fascinating in her own right — a trained political philosopher who also was president of two universities — Wellesley and Duke.  So she approaches the difficult problem of how to define leadership in democracy not just from a conceptual perspective but a practical one, as one who has led.

I’m looking forward to the class!

Statesmanship as Cudgel

In a column today titled “True statesmanship MIA at annual political pep rally,” the conservative commentator George Will wallops Congress with the “statesmanship” as a cudgel.  He lambastes the “vulgar State of the Union circus” for being as “undignified as it is unedifying and unnecessary.”  He writes:

[L]egislators from the president’s party will bray approval of his bromides and stillborn panaceas, legislators from the other party will be histrionically torpid or sullen, and some moral exemplars in the House gallery will be applauded.

Will praises the decision of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas not to attend, and goes farther:

No justices or senior military officers should stoop to being props at these puerile spectacles.

The SOTU probably has become more “political,” yes — but then, so have party nominating conventions. The question is how statesman adapt to these broader trends. Part of the lesson of statesmanship seems to be that the statesmen embed themselves within politics while seeking to rise above it, through persuasion, political mastery, understanding human beings (even adversaries), well-reasoned arguments, and the palpable power of conviction. 

By tarring the entire State of the Union with such a broad and pedantic brush, Will also risks gutting the very core of statesmanship — the ability to navigate the frothy sea where the riptides of public opinion, persuasion, and entertainment all collide.

The Silver Lining of a Split DC?

As we learned last week from Plato, statesmanship is about weaving and herding bipeds.  Does divided government make that easier or harder?  Political scientists generally approve of Parliamentary systems, where one party, presenting a clear ideological alternative, wins an election, and then gets to govern more or less unilaterally following that vision.

Our checks and balances system is different, forcing compromise between different parties and factions within a cantilevered system.  During the 1788 Richmond convention to ratify James Madison’s Constitution, Madison’s nemesis, Patrick Henry, strafed the checks and balances as “rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous.”  But Madison’s vision won out.

Madison’s teacher John Witherspoon called for a nexus imperii between the different elements of government — a noble nexus, a hub binding different arcs to each other.  Today, the three branches are in tension with each other.  And Congress — the populist House, the august Senate — is in tension with each other.  The military has civilian leadership.  The political appointees are in tension with the civil service.  The states are in tension with the federal government.

So it is good news or bad news for statesmanship in America that we learn from the New York Times that “divided government” will continue?  The Times predicts:

With the 2014 political landscape becoming more defined, it is increasingly likely that the midterm elections in November will maintain divided government in the capital for the final two years of President Obama’s second term, with the chief unknown being exactly how divided it will be.

Republicans will probably hold the House, though Democrats may win a few seats, and Senate Democrats (with their at-large elections in the states) may be facing an uphill battle.  That outcome?

They are at risk of losing it altogether, an outcome that would leave Capitol Hill entirely in Republican control for the conclusion of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

So any statesman looking to make an impact already knows what’s in store — that biped-weaving is in store.  The parties are quite far apart, ideologically.  Staking political battles solely for public appearance or short-term political gains probably won’t advance the ball much on any number of issues (infrastructure, immigration, R&D, job creation).  Neither will naive attempts to reach out, unsupported by canny political force.

Divided government can send the two forces in opposite directions, fighting each other pointlessly.  But if statesmen emerge to discover the nexus imperii, then checks and balances will not be an engine jammed for lack of oil, but can instead become the humming machine Madison imagines, pistons pumping.

To that end, it will be interesting to see the effect of the new No Labels effort, where some 70 Members of Congress will be wearing pins at the State of the Union address pledging themselves to bipartisan problem-solving.  The group has put up 12 Ways to Make Congress Work.  Here they are:

  1. No Budget, No Pay
    If Congress can’t pass a budget and all annual spending bills on time, members of Congress should not get paid.
  2. Up or Down Vote on Presidential Appointments

    All presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination.

  3. Fix the Filibuster
    Require real (not virtual) filibusters and end filibusters on motions to proceed.
  4. Empower the Sensible Majority
    Allow a bipartisan majority of members to override a leader or committee chair’s refusal to bring a bill to the floor.
  5. Make Members Come to Work
    Make Congress work on coordinated schedules with three five-day work weeks a month in DC and one week in their home district.
  6. Question Time for the President
    Provide a monthly forum for members of Congress to ask the president questions to force leaders to debate one another and defend their ideas.
  7. Fiscal Report to Congress: Hear it. Read it. Sign it.
    A nonpartisan leader should deliver an annual, televised fiscal update in-person to a joint session of Congress to ensure everyone is working off the same facts.
  8. No Pledge but the Oath of Office
    Members should make no pledge but the pledge of allegiance and their formal oath of office.
  9. Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings
    The House and Senate should institute monthly, off-the-record and bipartisan gatherings to get members talking across party lines.
  10. Bipartisan Seating
    At all joint meetings or sessions of Congress, each member should be seated next to at least one member of the other party.
  11. Bipartisan Leadership Committee
    Congressional party leaders should form a bipartisan congressional leadership committee to discuss legislative agendas and substantive solutions.
  12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents
    Incumbents from one party should not conduct negative campaigns against sitting members of the opposing party.
 Nice to see some specifics here!  And this is truly in the vein we need — structural reforms within the legislature to make it more hospitable to leadership… and to statesmanship.

The Professional Politician

It was January of 1919 — the armistice ending World War I had just been signed two months earlier, and all of Europe was staggering from the millions pointlessly killed, nowhere worse than in Germany, which had provoked the war and suffered its heaviest losses.

Max Weber, a fifty-three year old sociology professor who had served as a reserve officer and peace commissioner, rose to deliver a lecture on the promise, and peril, of politics.  An audience of students watched.  He was speaking directly to the hopes and fears of young people at a horrible turning point for Germany and for the world, and what he had to say was not exactly inspiring.

The lecture came to be titled “Politics as a Vocation.”  What he wanted to ask the students was to consider, very carefully, how they could serve the nation, their consciences, and the demands of universal ethics, if they went into public service.  He was speaking to civil servants, to party officials, to politicians — and to statesmen, the leaders who somehow rise above the rest.  What he had to say was at once inspiring and haunting.

He began by defining politics itself.  Politics, he said, was leaderhip of a state — it was not, in other words, just hobnobbing about parties or power.  It was connected to the apparatus of government itself.  And what was the state?  Weber offered a definition that continues to be used today — it was the “monopoly on legitimate force.”

Any state rests on force — on a reserve of violence, a monopoly of it.  Any politician who forgets that, Weber was telling the students, risks great danger.

His principal question was similar, in a way, to Plato’s in “Statesman” — How do the ruling powers manage to assert their rule?”  How do people get into a position where they control the monopoly on force?  What does it mean when that activity is professionalized, when people come into politics as a vocation?

He divided vocational politicians into two types: those who live for politics — for whom it’s an inward sense or a cause — and those who live from politics — who make their living from it.

Statesmen are different from civil servants, he said, because they take personal responsibility for government.

Weber felt that bureaucrats and party officials could, and often did, make horrible and bloody decisions on behalf of government.  He supported strong, executive types who would fully weigh the moral and personal costs of their involvement in government — in the monopoly on legitimate violence.

He warned the students about the “continual disappointments of those who live from politics.”

He said that three decisive qualities were required from any leader, anyone who lived for politics: Passion, responsibility, and a “sense of proportion.”  The challenge for the leader was how to “reconcile passion and cool sense of proportion,” and especially how to overcome their own vanity, which was natural in politics, especially for anyone who rose through their own charisma, through the power of speeches and performance.

The two great sins, he said, were the “lack of objectivity” and “irresponsibility” itself.

Keep in mind that this was fourteen years before Hindenberg would make Hitler Chancellor — but the very same year that the young, ambitious, angry, charismatic would join the German Worker’s Party, which gradually became the National Socialist Party, and then the Nazis.

There was unease in the air — Weber knew that something dark was coming over Germany and wanted his young students to arm themselves.  That is why the lecture has a melancholy, ominous tone, even now, almost a century later.

Our class so far has spent a lot of time on the difference between empirical and normative reasoning as it applies to statesmanship.  Is statesmanship something we discover by combing through evidence — is it a category for a sort of political behavior that exists and that we only have to find?

Or is it something different — is it a category that we want to exist because we desire a better politics?  Is it the product of aspirations, of norms, a rigorous standard that political actors ought to achieve?

Empirical vs. normative — the distinction bears the entire difference, the weight of the world.

Weber ended by urging his students to incorporate fundamental ethics into any choice of politics as a vocation.

He urged them to avoid rationalizations about past choices, which was “politically sterile.”  The politician must understand the moral burden he bears – he must, Weber said, be governed by the imperative: “You shall resist evil by force, otherwise you will be responsible for its spread.”

This was an a “absolutist” ethic of responsibility.”  The politician must not only understand but embrace the fact that “These consequences are attributable to my actions.”

This was normative reasoning at its best, an unapologetic exhortation that his students be better politicians than in the past — and thus, they might become the best politician of all — the statesman.

Weber told the students to beware not just the “ethically risky” choices — but the cost of ethical breaches to himself, to his own soul.  He even cited Dostoevsky’s wrenching example of the Grand Inquisitor, who poses the question of whether humanity could survive if it lived through the sacrifice of a single innocent.  It could not, he concluded, because the moral pollution would not be survivable.

The statesman must absorb all of this and bear up in politics with “inward gravity.”  His “ethic of responsibility” can “employ force” — but he also must “cultivate brotherliness.”

And then Weber ended with his famous metaphor about politics, that it is the “slow boring of hard boards.”

The politician with gravity, with endurance, with brotherliness, and with a full and considered understanding of the weight and danger of his power — only that politician can, and should, become the higher form: a statesman.