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David Brooks: Why politics is noble

  • New York Times
  • Published Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, at 5:13 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, at 5:13 p.m.

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people – young people especially – think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others – if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise, and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.

The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues. Politics involves such a perilous stream of character tests – how low you can stoop to conquer without destroying yourself, when you should be loyal to your team and when you should break from it, how you wrestle with the temptations of fame – that the people who can practice it and remain intact, like Lincoln, Washington or Churchill, are incredibly impressive.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does a nice job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

Toward the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had to choose between two rival goods, immediate peace and the definitive end of slavery. He had to scuttle a peace process that would have saved thousands of lives in order to achieve a larger objective. He had to discern the core good, legal equality, among a flurry of other issues.

If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be. The moral issue here is a relatively clean one: slavery or no slavery. Most issues are not that simple.

Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both sides. It’s a speech in which Lincoln, in the midst of the fray, is able to take a vantage point above it, embodying a tragic and biblical perspective on human affairs. Lincoln’s wisdom emerges precisely from the fact that he’s damaged goods.

Politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some impressive people and, sometimes, great results.

David Brooks writes for the New York Times.

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