Academia and Politics

Luis Rubio

For Machiavelli, successful political operators are those who give the appearance of naiveté and cultivate a reputation of benevolence, independently of what they are conniving sub rosa. In contrast, those who assume themselves to be Machiavellian and attempt to develop a reputation as such –crafty rumormongers and other pretentious politicians- are not. This reflection on the virtues of power and its administration came to mind when I read an exceptionally interesting book, owing to the author’s honesty as well as its implications.

Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian, was a successful professor of politics at Harvard when he was invited to enlist in the politics of his country with prospects of the leadership of his party. The book, Fire and Ashes, is an  incisive account of his (pathetic) decision making process, the election that led him to lose the power, the party and even his own seat in the Canadian Parliament.

In reality the book is a great reflection about the contrast that exists between academia and public life, two worlds that evidently interact but that are not the same and that, with few exceptions, are distinguished by skills that are not transferable between them, however much many, like the cunning bruiter who fancies himself/herself the epitome of Machiavellianism, might think the contrary.

In his book Los Presidentes, Julio Scherer cites Octavio Paz affirming that “intellectuals in power stop being intellectuals although they continue to be learned and intelligent… because thinking is very distinct from giving orders…” Ignatieff explains the other side of the coin: the dilemmas, the deficiencies and the incompetence of a serious and successful academic in his transit through the spheres of power. The author’s terminus a quo and, in a certain manner, the sum of this argumentation, is that the skills of a successful politician (in the Machiavellian sense) can be learned but not taught. That is, the liaison between the two worlds is indirect and tenuous.

Ignatieff’s book led me to three reflections. First about something that Michael Barone, an American political analyst, has described for some time now about his country: the ideas stemming from academia are not always applicable to the world of politics, no matter how impeccable the mathematical and conceptual models from which they emanate appear. While the scholar is committed to his own learning and analysis  –and changes his mind as his own observations exact it-, the politician lives in the trenches trying to advance projects, objectives and even ideas, when his instinct tells him the time has come. The intersection is obvious, but so are the differences: the politician knows that he cannot control all of the variables and that time –timing- is key. For the academic it is easy to isolate the variables and suppose that the world will act the way his model suggests.

The second reflection is about power. Ignatieff relates his conversations and encounters with professional politicians whose motivation and conduct is that of constant competition for a seat in parliament and, by that means, to advance his/her plans and projects, personal as well as those for society. The academician inside the author is capable of analyzing the phenomenon and understanding its dynamic but does not know how to deal with it.  In an interesting passage in his book, Ignatieff detects circumstances typical of politics, above all of the way an idea or approach gathers strength because someone “important” voices it and it, albeit false, spreads like wildfire, repeated by one and all. A politician grapples with forces that are obvious and many that are not, a distinct atmosphere from that of academia where speculative discussion is not only valid, but also rewarded.

Finally, my third reflection on reading this failed politician concerns the daily activity of politicians, accented in countries where reelection is for real and that entails positioning oneself close to the electorate on an ongoing basis. On the one hand there’s the real satisfaction of needs and petitions of those represented, a circumstance requiring attention, management and action. On the other hand there is the imperious need for the politician to be a permanent actor, to convince the voters that he/she is working for them and to never lose his composure. Politics 24/7, unknown in the Mexican arena where (many of) the posts, including the electoral ones, are parceled out, not won.

Perhaps the characteristic of open polities, directed by the citizen and subject to constant reelection, is that politicians are in the catbird seat while they’re there but afterward they have to earn a living again some other way. In some countries they retire, in other they start a business and yet others find ways of occupying their time whether by giving classes again (Ignatieff), as being consultants or lobbyists.  They accept that their cycle has come to an end. That doesn’t happen in Mexico, the country of the Ferris wheel.

Ignatieff, recognized expert on Machiavelli, devoted himself to teach the book that changed the knowledge and perspective of politics. Notwithstanding this, when the time came to perform in politics he lacked the capacity to do so and ended up a failure as candidate, leader and politician. In a recent article, after the publication of the book, he asks whether the President (Obama) is sufficiently Machiavellian. That’s the question that the author himself, and any academic or intellectual with a yen to get into the world of politics, should ask himself/herself before taking the leap.