19 January 2021

Defending ordinary politics: Crick's contribution

Sir Bernard Crick
In 1962 British political scientist Bernard Crick (1929-2008) wrote a book that quickly became a classic, In Defence of Politics. Receiving a knighthood late in life for his contribution to citizenship education, Sir Bernard was a partisan of an unusual sort. A professed socialist, he was an advisor to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party in the 1980s. 

Yet he was often mistaken for a Burkean conservative, due primarily to his expressed conviction that politics is a distinctive enterprise that ought to be valued, not only for its ability to deliver desired goods, but for providing a framework in which potential opponents can work out their differences in peaceful fashion. Crick defined politics as

the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community. And, to complete the formal definition, a political system is that type of government where politics proves successful in ensuring reasonable stability and order (21).

For Crick politics serves an important purpose, but one that cannot be reduced to the provision of, say, economic benefits to the greatest number of people, as many of his fellow socialists would assume. After defining politics, Crick goes on in his book to defend politics against a variety of potential threats, including ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology, and false friends such as “the anti-political socialist.”

Crick was part of a small group of 20th-century political philosophers who cherished political life as constituting something irreplaceable and for which there can be no adequate substitute. Such figures as Sheldon S. Wolin (1922-2015), Yves R. Simon (1903-1961), Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013) praise politics in ways that elude the mainstream of the modern western tradition. 

For all their differences, for example, John Locke and Karl Marx are both anti-political, seeing political rule as merely ancillary to economic life. Thus the capitalist heirs of Locke and the collectivist heirs of Marx view politics as a real or potential obstacle to the interests and aspirations of ordinary people which are fundamentally economic in nature. When citizens of western democracies “vote their pocketbooks,” as they are frequently said to do, they are bypassing an in depth consideration of what constitutes the public interest, as opposed to the particular interests of individuals and smaller groups within the body politic.

Today much of our politics is issue-driven. Different groups focus on different collections of issues which they wish to see addressed and potentially resolved by government. In one sense this is understandable. After all, the aspiration to see justice done typically revolves around specific issues calling for attention. Images of illegal immigrants in cages, strip mines destroying a landscape, or children living in poverty motivate people to work to protect immigrants, the environment, and the youngest and most vulnerable among us. This is as it should be. I myself decided to study politics following the Watergate scandal and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Politics in the abstract does not have the same allure as particular issues that affect us at a basic emotional level.

Nevertheless, it is when politics in Crick's sense breaks down that we become freshly aware of the worth of our political institutions. We saw something of this institutional failure on 6 January with the storming of the Capitol building by a mob egged on by the President himself. Many of the President's followers were so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they were willing effectively to hold hostage the institutions of government for the purpose of getting their way on particular issues of concern. If this meant trashing the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and taking selfies in the Senate chamber, so be it.

Here in Canada a new Privy Councillor takes an oath to “be a true and faithful servant” of the Queen, who embodies the legal abstraction known as the Crown. And although a Cabinet minister is bound to her political party, the oath underscores the fact that she owes a higher allegiance to something transcending partisan divisions. 

When a president takes office, he swears an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. As such, his first loyalty is precisely to the "supreme law of the land" and not to a partisan agenda. Why? Because this law provides the underlying institutional framework within which partisan agendas can be weighed and debated. Where a substantial portion of the public has come to doubt the efficacy of such institutions to do justice, Crick's peaceful conciliation of diversity comes under threat. It may be only a slight exaggeration to observe that open war is the next logical step.

I will not suggest that we put aside our differences on specific policies. Pro-lifers will continue to pursue their goal of protecting unborn children, as pro-choicers will continue to protect what they see as a woman's right to choose. Although I am much closer to the former than to the latter, I would counsel both to recognize the inestimable worth of the institutional framework that permits them to air their differences honestly and respectfully. If one side is so dedicated to defeating the other that it is willing to risk bringing down these institutions in the process, then its followers need to think long and hard about what awaits us all in their absence. As Crick puts it, politics is “something to be valued almost as a pearl beyond price” (17). As such, we ought to take pains, not only to pursue specific causes with obvious appeal, but to work to maintain a larger political system enabling us to live in peace with our political opponents.

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