Politicians cannot be the perfect blend of intellectual and action heroby AC Grayling / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Should politicians be thinkers or doers? The hope that springs readily to mind is that they should be both, as judiciously as possible. There is truth in this cliché—but the key is the role played by judiciousness. The point is interestingly various: thinking should sometimes prevent doing; thinking should help to distinguish which of competing options for doing is best; thinking sometimes just is doing; the necessity for doing has to cut thinking short sometimes; and so forth. It is judiciousness that tells us which to follow, in each case.
President Barack Obama is regarded as a thinker for whom the pale cast of thought undermines the native hue of resolution. Margaret Thatcher is regarded as someone who worked from gut instinct, much action and little cerebration. When Michael Foot, as leader of the Labour Party, visibly thought about his answers during interviews, instead of trotting out instantaneously glib replies, the public thought him useless.
Perhaps the public does not like the idea of thoughtful politicians—holding the opinion that Julius Caesar had of Cassius: that thinkers are sneaky blighters and people should have pre-prepared plans ready to go into action.
We are inclined to overestimate what politicians can achieve. Unless they hold office, there is little they can do. Even when they hold office, they are severely constrained; the most senior figures in the land cannot—except in North Korea—snap their fingers to give effect to their desires. All the further clichés about political office are true: that it is like herding cats; that realities profoundly limit possibilities; that political careers inevitably end in failure. In politics, therefore, thought far outstrips action: what a politician would like to achieve is very unlike what results.