Politics Book Review: Same Old Incendiary

With the election upon us, a measure of sanity and perspective.

Books discussed in this review:

Sorry, this reviewer’s been away awhile. We’re back, and what better time than Elections’ Eve? Like so much Shakespeare, the crux of today’s US political climate can be summed up in a lyric:

“Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.” Coriolanus (IV, ii).

By now, the nation’s well through its to be or not to be election paces: manic, ambivalent and frenzied over November 6. We say, “We’ve never been so divided,” and, “This is the most important election in a generation.” Both are wrong—the past is and remains brethren to the future.

But briefly back to the Bard. Coriolanus is a lesser known work but foundational to modern political thought. More than Oedipal familiar relations, this is a story about the soullessness of politics—that to be scruple free is axiomatic at the nation-ruling level.

Coriolanus is banished because he refuses to be a good politician, i.e., refuses to use his silver tongue. At some point, somewhere, the notion of political Machiavellianism as a means to principled action (which perhaps one can argue as virtuous, but I won’t), flips or warps into politics for its own sake—the getting and keeping of power as its own virtue. We’ve all seen it—every politician eventually flip-flops, retreads, hem-haws to whatever is expedient. Whatever allows him/her to win the next election. We aren’t told what party Coriolanus belongs to—it doesn’t even matter. At this level it resonates because we sense the universal, archetypal features going back as far as Plato’s misguided recommendation for philosopher kings and even before—politics corrupts.

This represents a sickness we might colloquially call lack of integrity, but the psychological community has a clinical term: sociopathology. We’ve been trained culturally to think of political evil as a soliloquized, internalized, realization of Shakespeare’s Richard III ilk: “To entertain these fair well-spoken days/ I am determined to prove a villain,” (I, i) and, “And thus I clothe my naked villainy/With odd old ends, stol'n out of holy writ;/And seem a saint, when most I play the devil” (I, iii).

(Is it patently clear yet my summer literary project was to reread Shakespeare?)

But I think calling long-time politicians sociopathic is closer to true. Folks tend to think of sociopaths as “antisocial” and politicians as hyper-social, but “lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another” and basic “deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure” (directly from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), fit the bill nicely. Often with a dose of narcissism thrown in.*

I’ve never been a politician, but I’m sure many enter the fray intending nobility. Jonathan Haidt, who’s a sort of moral psychologist cum moral philosopher, explains why and how this could be so. His The Righteous Mind is the most important political book you can read this year. Haidt, rightly, tells us we’re all hopelessly tied to our beliefs—right or wrong. Mostly he hones in on politics for this book, but this is a human truism. Principally, he makes a forceful scientific argument that we overwhelmingly make decisions with our unconscious guts and then use reason to rationalize our views. Carl Popper and others saw that even scientists do this, and, well, it’s an epidemic for everyday folks. Also (and tied to Richard III), it’s not that people (even politicians) believe they’re acting poorly—it all gets rationalized. The next thing you know, there seem to be good reasons for doing whatever it takes to keep power.

But let’s talk of now and the analogous past. Robert Draper’s Do Not Ask What Good We Do is fun, haughty and speaks directly to how folks feel about today’s political climate. Draper, a Vanity Fair veteran, writes in vignettes and little tales to illustrate the apparent dysfunction of the 2010 Congress—how offices get selected, ad hoc clique-ish barbeques, the frequent tears of Boehner, ersatz negotiations and unilateralisms of Pelosi and so on. This is a breezier and pulpier endeavor than slogging through Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men (a laborious recounting of the political features of the financial crisis), or Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics. I’ve faithfully read Woodward forever and am about ready to give up the ghost. Much like his last book on G.W. Bush’s wartime policy, by the time Woodward’s work is released there’s little or nothing we don’t already know. Same for Suskind—pre-release press blustered with the promise of sensation, but both are full of what we already knew.

Perhaps, then, it’s worth the while to thumb through Jeffrey Toobin’s The Oath, a chronology of Obama’s first term vis-ü-vis the Supreme Court. Toobin provides a fine view of where the court and politics meet but offers less in the way of explaining the philosophical juxtapositions between Obama, Congress and The Nine. A reading with an eye for markets will note how small an impact the court generally has—rulings that seem landmark, even on Obamacare, often have less impact than headlines fret. This has always been mostly true—by the time a decision comes down, there is little surprise and scads of time for markets to price a result in.

All these books speak directly to that sociopathology—to “ask what good we do” is a perfect question to not ask a long-time politician of any stripe. These people have personality disorders.

What of all this is unique to today? In my view, virtually nothing. Fergus Bordewich’s biography of what were long thought US Congress’ most contentious moments in America’s Great Debate will adjust the perspective of any cynic. The middle of the nineteenth century was so full of fretful change: slavery, annexing the West (particularly California), to name two big ones. We seem to easily forget our nation’s congressional history is full of duels, fist fights, ruinous slander and libel—myriad incendiary issues (like the Civil War). Bordewich shows, starkly, today’s rabble is on par with the past, but certainly not past it—hair-raising, hare-brained bickering is part and parcel of our national process. Actually, this is globally true—check out some of the ASEAN parliaments sometime; those guys actually and often strangle each other as a matter of rhetorical tactic. Today’s hyper-media culture might heighten it, but it’s the same old sociopathology; the same old incendiary infighting we’ve always had.

Maybe you’ll retort: But we don’t have a Henry Clay today to broker the peace, or a Lyndon Johnson, or whomever. We don’t need them—political expediency always rules the day, not the spirit of compromise. This is not a nation of conciliators—what makes a great democracy and a great free market is not some bell curve homogeneity; it’s the clashing of disparate views in a system allowing for all to be voiced. In capital markets we call this stable rule of law and strong property rights and pricing; in democracy, we call this voting.

This is useful to keep in mind after the polls close and the so-called fiscal cliff takes front and center stage. Expediency will rule: What would politicians with personality disorders do? Create drama, raise funds on those issues, take the issue to the brink or close and then declare they’ve saved the world. Congress alone has done this repeatedly when it comes to raising the debt ceiling, and it goes on forever in the budgeting system.

Your candidate will either experience the triumph of victory or the agony of defeat—and you’ll feel that thrill or pain with them from your couch. I invite you instead to keep two concise books close to your breast before you beat it in frustration: Cicero’s How to Win an Election and Kenneth Weisbrode’s On Ambivalence. Cicero, still the greatest theorizer on oratory and the most shrewd of political minds, offers wonderful advice for those seeking election. And this new translation offers a great introduction to some basic sociopathic concepts to get you there. This is Machiavelli ahead of its time, but with a far softer touch. As for On Ambivalence, Weisbrode ably amplifies and updates this original Freudian notion. It’s a glimpse into how good money managers react to politics: live with the tension and the infighting, don’t take a side, and watch what they do not what they say. Above all, remain above it in order to see capital market implications clearly.

“Faith, there have been many great men that have flatter'd the people, who ne'er loved them.” (Coriolanus, II, ii)


* Mind you, I don’t practice clinical psychology, so these comparisons are for illustration. And of course, are gross generalizations.

If you would like to contact the editors responsible for this article, please click here.

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.