Amongst liberals – Michael Ignatieff

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Between thinkers and acts

Libraries are full of enlightened theories about politics and governance, about justice and freedom. From Aristotle to John Rawls, history is filled with thinkers who want to improve politics. But do politicians care for these abstract theories? Does the political thinker stand on the sidelines or is he a valued advisor? Idee presents a series of interviews in which historian Coen Brummer interviews (liberal) political thinkers on the tension between theory and practice. In this episode: Michael Ignatieff

By Coen Brummer

"Politics is not an idea-free zone"

Michael Ignatieff (1947) was well on his way to becoming the classic example of a polit-ical thinker and a public intellectual. Having studied under Oxford celebrity Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) and authored numerous books on human rights and political theory, not many academics could match his resume, his intellect or his outspokenness. After travelling and teaching across the world, the political historian by training settled down in Boston to teach classes in international relations and human rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But then some party hacks from the Canadian Liberal Party paid him a visit and invited him to put his ideas about politics into practice. Ignatieff was persuaded to run for a seat in the House of Commons. He got elected and lived through a rough period in Canadian politics, with the Liberal Party under siege by the Conservatives. Ignatieff won the bid for the party leadership in 2009, but resigned after a dramatic electoral defeat in 2011. What did he do wrong? Analysing both his mistakes and his successes, Ignatieff wrote a book about his political career: Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. You write that you admire intellectuals who step up and enter the political arena. But well before deciding to run for office yourself, you realised that those intellectuals often fail. Why did you decide to enter ‘the dark side’? "I thought it was the light side, in fact. I’m a child of the sixties, so the politics of Jack Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were extremely important to me. From the earliest stage I felt that politics could be a heroic way of life. They inspired me and it was a very exceptional time to come of age politically. You had to be made of stone not to be influenced by those people and I certainly was. So when my time came in 2004 and people approached me out of the blue, that went through my mind. I don’t think I judged my moment very well. In many ways, I misjudged it. The times were not suited for what I wanted to do. But I don’t regret doing it." You are an academic. Why is it that there are always some adversarial feelings between intellectuals and their political ideas on one side and the practical world of politics on the other? "Too many people who write about politics and theorize about politics don’t have a sufficient practical sense of what is doable and not doable. They don’t have a specific sense of institutions. Political ideas are always realised through institutions. You have to understand how institutions work; you have to understand how political parties work. What coalitions of constitutions have to be put together to make ideas work? There is an enormous gap between believing in equality before the law and equality regardless of sexual orientation and then a gay marriage bill. Getting a gay marriage bill though parliament means talking to people who believe marriage is something between a man and a woman. People who believe, for a perfectly honourable reason, that it is unnatural for gays to be together. So, they are not going to vote for you. Perhaps then, you have to persuade them to abstain or to do it some other way. That is how you get things done. The great thing about politics is that in the process of creating coalitions it forces you to reason with people who think exactly the opposite of you." Before entering politics, did you have the feeling you understood these political institutions enough yourself ? "I didn’t understand them at all. I didn’t understand what a political party was, I didn’t understand how much the Liberal Party had changed over the years. I didn’t understand factions and divisions within the party. All parties have divisions in them. All parties are coalitions, especially parties in the centre. They consist of fiscal conservatives and social progressives, for example. Keeping them together is the disci-pline of a centrist party. During my time in politics, that centrist position came under a lot of pressure. Prime-minister Stephen Harper was bleeding off the fiscal conservatives. The New Democratic Party was bleeding off the social progressives. The challenge was keeping them together and I was not successful. But that’s what I believe centrist politics is. Coalitions are formed within parties. It is about getting people who don’t agree about everything to agree on something. That means understanding you live in a plural world morally. So the task of politics is to mediate disagreement. And find limited compromises that are needed to move forward." You studied politics for your entire academic career. I can imagine you knew these things already. If we had had this conversation ten years ago, wouldn’t you have told me the same things about parties and institutions? "You can know a lot of things in theory, but knowing them as a daily life experience is very different. I knew in theory that people disagree with each other. They disagree in seminar rooms. But it is another thing to encounter disagreement when it is political. I didn’t understand how antag-onistic politics was. This sounds terribly naïve. What did I think it was, some kind of seminar? It’s a battleground! A battle for personalities, a battle for power. The antagonistic character of it came as a bit of a shock." How did you handle this? "One of the key things was to hold on to the distinction between an adversary and an enemy. And that’s very difficult in politics. It becomes easy for the metaphors of war and battle to take you over bit by bit. You start using this language of war in politics and it starts to inhabit your mental world. But why do we love politics? Because it is the alternative to war! People tend to forget that politics is a battle of conflicting loyalties. Loyalties to yourself, to those you represent, to you party, to your country. But also to the political system itself. We almost never talk about this, but you don’t want to spend 25 years of your life as a politician and come out thinking you made the system a little worse than when you came in. Few people can claim they have made it better, but you definitely don’t want to have made it worse. I think some of my opponents did make politics worse." Would you say the political world as you experienced it is by definition hostile to reason, political ideas, the things a political philosopher has on his agenda when he enters politics? "I think that is overstated. Often, people believe that, but I was always struck in caucus debates how much arguments mattered. I wouldn’t say it is like Aristotle’s agora but I heard serious arguments. It is not an intellectual seminar, that’s for sure. But it’s not the idea-free zone people pretend it is either. I wouldn’t want to overdo how rational politics is, but I also don’t want to say that reason and arguments don’t matter. They do matter, for the simple reason [that] they matter to human beings. We’re the kind of animals that need reasons to do things." Looking back, would you have wished that there was more room for ideas? "What I found striking was that nobody took the time to refute my ideas. They were too busy refuting me. Can it be different? Well, the message in politics is only heard when it is spoken by a messenger who’s authentic. Intellectuals find it difficult that the message depends on the messenger. In academic life, who knew [what] John Rawls looked like? The theory of justice depended on a strong argument, not on the person Rawls was. In politics it is totally different. We don’t talk about ‘health care reform’; we talk about ‘Obamacare’. You cannot separate the message from the messenger. That is how it should be, but the problem is that if you can defy the messenger, you don’t have to refute his ideas. But that simply requires greater political skill: don’t let yourself get framed and impose your own message." You sound more positive than most intellectuals. The complaint is often heard that they feel they’re not taken seriously by politicians and bureaucrats. "I don’t think intellectuals should be encountered with that much respect. Intellectuals are resentful about the fact that they’re not treated with more respect. Well, tough. Suck it up. Academics and intellectuals have power in society, but all forms of power should be countered with pressure. The only power that can put the power of intellectuals under pressure is the power of the people. I am a democrat in that sense. If you walk around with a PhD thinking ‘why isn’t everyone listening to me?’ you’re slightly missing the point. The point about democracy is that the waiter and the taxi driver are as important in politics as everybody else. Besides, a politician’s job is not to be interested in ideas, but in getting things done. A politician doesn’t have to read the climate science reports or to have great thoughts about nature. His job is to figure out what legislative path we can take that gets our carbon emissions under control. And we ought to have respect for that kind of knowledge. A good politician is not interested in ideas; he’s interested in which ideas’ time has come." Machiavelli wrote a lot about timing, which he called Fortuna. One of your teachers, Isaiah Berlin, studied Machiavelli extensively. What was the most useful lesson Berlin taught you? "Berlin thought me that political life is not a choice between good and evil, but between goods. Some of those choices are really hard and there is no science, no philosophy of government that can make those choices for you. You just have to choose. Berlin did not believe in political science. He believed in using your reason as best as you can, but a lot of political choices are about shutting your eyes and say ‘boom, we do this’. And it may end up very badly for you. There is not much to guide you, except your principles and your experiences. And every form of choice, Berlin said, involves giving up something else."   Coen Brummer studied history and philosophy. He currently works as a press officer for D66 in the Dutch Parliament.   Heeft dit artikel uw interesse gewekt? Klik hier voor meer info en abonnementen. – – Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2013: Crossing European borders, en is te vinden bij het onderwerp interviews.