As I was teaching Plato’s Republic yesterday, we came to the passage in Book I where Socrates tells Glaucon that good men only rule so as to avoid being ruled by someone worse. In a city full of good men, he says, there would be an argument over who had to rule, as everyone would prefer to be benefitted rather than to benefit others.
There are (at least) two implications here. First, we should be suspicious of political ambition: people who actually want political power probably don’t have admirable motives. Second, Plato’s Socrates apparently can’t conceive of a "selfless" or "altruistic" motive. What merely appears to be such is really a manifestation of a sense that one has something better to do for oneself. Philosophy emerges in the Republic as the great competitor for, and antidote to, tawdry and self-seeking political ambition.
Of course, that doesn’t leave room for "politics as a vocation" or calling, something that politicians (of whom we’re rightly suspicious) evoke when they speak about a life devoted to public service.
All of this is a long way of introducing David Brooks’s column about retiring Ohio Congresswoman Deborah Pryce, who clearly didn’t like what she had to do to scrape by with a narrow victory in 2006. Brooks admires her, and others like her, for avoiding the principal occupational hazard of political life:
Politics, as you know, is a tainted profession. Professional politicians cannot serve their country if they do not win their races, and to do that they must grapple with a vast array of forces that try to remold and destroy who they are.
There are consultants who try to turn them into prepackaged clones. There are party whips demanding total loyalty. There is a culture of workaholism that strangles private life and private thinking. There are journalists who define them based on a few ideological labels.
And then there is the soul-destroying act of campaigning itself. Active campaigners are compelled to embrace the ideology of Meism.
They spend their days talking endlessly about Me. When they meet donors, they want to know if they are giving to Me or against Me. When they meet advisers and fellow pols, they want to know, do they support Me or not Me. When they think about strategy, it’s about better ways to present Me. When they craft positions, they want to know, what does this say about Me?>
No normal person can withstand the onslaught of egotism and come out unscathed.
And so there are two kinds of politicians: those who become creatures of the process, and those who, like Pryce, resist and retain the capacity to be appalled by what they must do.
An amazing number gladly surrender. “Public people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves,” Meg Greenfield wrote in “Washington,” her memoir. “They allow the markings of region, family, class, individual character and, generally, personhood that they once possessed to be leached away. At the same time, they construct a new public self that often does terrible damage to what remains of the genuine person.”
These politicians become denatured pantomimes. They have no thoughts in private that are different from the bromides they utter in public. They confuse public image with real self. They talk to you as an individual the same way they would address a large crowd.
Why would any decent, self-respecting person want to do this? There’s the Socratic motive--not wanting to be ruled by someone worse--however rarely the self-esteem implicit in that view is truly justified. And there’s the calling of public service, which I think is genuine, but of which (as I said) we’re rightly suspicious when politicians talk too much about it.
I have some stake in sorting this out in the particular cases before me as I decide who I’m going to support in ’08 (as if it will matter by the time the Georgia primary rolls around). And it’s why this article, to which Peter L. called our attention, makes Fred Thompson continue to seem appealing.