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The politics of performance vs. the performance of politics

[by Lynn C. Rees]

A favorite rule of thumb of mine is that politics is the division of power. The three most important questions I ask about politics tend to be:

  1. What is the division of power?
  2. What is the division of power?
  3. What is the division of power?

This can oversimplify, perhaps going for blacker black when grayer grey will do. The notion that politics is the division of power originates in a more cynical school of politics than Civics 101. It will come off more as darker dark than whiter white. Considered in isolation, it can come off as naive materialism, stubbornly and single-mindedly clinging to the assumption that the life of man is tragic, nihilistic, and trite, a farce of grunting conditioned responses driven solely by thirst for power and its fruits.

From a more clinical distance, politics as division of power is merely instrumental. By itself, it is neither black nor white, good nor evil. It merely is. As war is instrument, effector, and expression of politics all in one, juiced up an admixture of physical violence as persuasive spice, politics is an instrument, effector, and expression of culture. Without culture, politics lacks meaning. Without politics, culture is dead. Culture needs power to be more than dead letters. Politics needs culture to be more than twisting machinations, soap operas without end.

To consider politics without culture may be useful for analytic or presentation needs. But to divorce culture from politics and leave a wide gulf that exists more in imagination than substance is as dangerous and seductive as divorcing war from politics. In reality, all are merely expressions of the same human strivings, artificially shorn from one other for more comprehensible storytelling.

The particular rhythms of politics and culture, even though tightly interwoven, hit their own distinctive notes. The warp and weave of culture may hit higher, clearer tones. The twists and contortions of politics may strike a deeper, muddier pitch. Yet both are needed for a well-orchestrated score that marries a healthy bass with soaring melody.

The Constitution of the United States has a peculiar office from a contemporary institutional perspective. Due to the fateful meeting of the peculiar cultural inheritance of English-speaking North America and the curious political conditions of the 1780s, the United States government is led by an elected monarch. Republican themed governments established in the immediate wake of the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, most prominently in the newly independent nations that carved themselves from the corpse of the Portuguese and Spanish empires, adopted the same principle of an elected monarch, usually with indifferent to disastrous results. The office of president usually ended up being indistinguishable from the office of king or emperor, though the branding was different and the optics more current.

Outside of the Americas, today’s most common form of government arose from the perhaps even more highly contingent cultural and political circumstances of the fall of the Second Empire of the Buonapartes, the original for Marx’s historical tragedy repeated as farce. The precipitous fall of the Idiot Nephew left a vacuum. Republicans, some smelling of Jacobinism and Terror, clambered over antediluvian Bourbon and Orleanist pretenders in a race to where even fools feared to tread. Though retro-monarchists who thought Richelieu or Mazarin too modern and too moderate were probably in the majority during the following decade, the times conspired to deny them another go at absolutism under a sacred monarch.

The result was a system where the executive ended up divided between an elected figurehead with little constitutional or customary power and a legislative leader selected by a working majority who held most of the real power, one rooted in their ability to get laws through through the legislature. The French Third Republic ended up with a president who was head of state and a premier who was head of government. This created a partial separation of state and government. The government is dead, but, since the state endured, long live the government.

This separation was further accentuated by the remarkable frequency with which premiers and governments rose and fell under the Third Republic. It was possible for a more assertive president like Raymond Poincare to exercise more power than perhaps the ideal of the Third Republic would like. Remarkably, the whole thing endured the travail of World War I which saw the French Republic survive the rare pairing of assertive premier (Georges Clemenceau) with assertive president (Poincare) until the Third Republic was destroyed by that unfortunate sizable hole they left in the middle of their defenses. The Second Empire fell at Sedan so it’s odd the Third Republic let itself fall at…Sedan.

There are some hypothetically attractive features of a clean separation between state and government and their respective leaders. Joining the two as the U.S. Constitution does leads to a situation where you need a criminal conviction in order to fire an incompetent employee i.e. the President of the United States.

My cousin Thomas Riley Marshall, vice-president of the United States under Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed), was encouraged to oust the head of the ticket after that evil critter was crippled by a debilitating stroke. Cousin Tom anguished over the decision before deciding against it out of fear he’d establish some toxic precedent for kicking the People’s Choice™ out of office. Cousin Tom may go down in history as a hero of feminism, if heroes of feminism are in fact a thing, for electing the nation’s first de facto woman president through inaction. He may have left the worst U.S. president of the 2oth century intact as a diseased pustule that could still periodically burst and infect the republic.

I don’t judge Cousin Tom too harshly: he’s family, after all. He was an amiable chap and he legitimately fretted about ejecting evil from the oval office for perfectly understandable reasons. Within the cultural distinctiveness of the United States government and the peculiar trajectory of its political perturbations, he probably made the right call. A future where Thomas Woodrow Wilson (bones, crushed) wasn’t tossed out onto the street may have been the best of all possible futures. However, other nations, drawing on the traditions of the Third Republic and even that sunless nation of shopkeepers, have systems that let them fire the help without criminal trials, constitutional crises, or even attacks of angst or hand-wringing.

However, nations aren’t made by clever institutional counter-weights or finely tuned parchment walls. They’re not even made by blood and iron. Robin Pearson, voice of the History of Byzantium podcast, pointed out that constant imposition of iron to beget blood is expensive. A state that had to rely on continuous active application of violence, though violence is the primal core of the dividing of power, would quickly enervate itself into bankruptcy. The wise statesmen, and, usually, even the mediocre statesmen, strive to create the legitimacy that will bind people to state through cultural ties of love, fear, and, strongest of all, habit. Drip, drip, like Chinese water torture, habit will bind men stronger than the sword or the pen, though a bit of both violence and influence is a component of building habit.

In charting the byzantine machinations of Byzantine religious controversy, Pearson echoes a point raised by his podcast predecessor Mike Duncan of the History of Rome podcast: offended gods are a national security threat. If the sacred chickens are tossed overboard because they fail to peck an omen in a timely fashion, the gods will take it personally and personally take it out on Rome’s fortunes with her enemies. When pagan Roman Empire became Christian Byzantium and indulged in seemingly pointless byzantine hair splitting over how many inches an image had to rise above the medium it was emblazoned upon before it became an idol, it was a continuation of sacralized poultry divination by other means. In the immortal question posed by Bart Simpson to the Flanders boys, “Angry God or Happy God?” The rational statesmen usually opts for Happy God and ensures his sacred chicken have all the leeway they need to peck out the future and double-checks that his icons are safely two-dimensional so they aren’t accidentally mistaken for Golden Calves.

God in His heavens is not actually moved by such petty propitiations: His ways are higher than fumbling human appeasement. He knows how to do His own work. Trying to get on His good side by striving to do His will is still a sensible policy. Even debauched former choir boy Josef Stalin allowed carefully metered appeals to the old God of Mother Russia during the darkest days of Barbarossa. The most useful god, even for a godless atheist like Uncle Joe, was a god of habit. The tyranny of the GULAG is a toddler’s temper tantrum next to the more pervasive tyranny of habit, however constituted.

Culture is the art of the unspoken assumption. Statesmen who strive against the grain of culture, especially as manifested in habit, culture’s most concentrated form, are petting the cat backwards. They’re not likely to get the purring they’re expecting. Separation of the office of head of state from head of government and, the second being like unto it, the separation of the state from government appeal to me on the happy clean idea level. However, the two roles are married in American political culture. Trying to divide them would only produce an enraged feline.

If you can’t separate application logic from application presentation, the fusion of the two should be as effective as possible. The greatest president of my lifetime, Ronald Wilson Reagan, may his bones be unbroken, was an actor by trade. This was frequently ridiculed by the pompous commentariat of the day. Yet, those commentators make the same mistake those who mistake politics solely as a materialistic wrestling for goodies make. Reagan came to office better prepared to straddle the dual aspects of head of state and head of government than any other president of his half-century. He understood the importance of good theater in politics as a way of cultivating habit and reinforcing culture in a way that presidents like the dismal James Edward Carter, the dour peanut baron who preceded Reagan in office and who some still think was somehow smarter and thus superior to Reagan, do not.

Growing up, I knew what a President of the United States was: my president knew how to play the role. As he descended into the twilight that eventually ended his mortal experience, Reagan drifted away from the nuts and bolts of the role the head of government he never cared for. However, When it came to the role of head of state, acting as a focal point for the cultural habits of a nation, he never seriously dropped the ball. As a republican, I deplore anything smelling of one man rule, monarchial pretense, or the cult of the indispensable man of destiny. Yet, as an American, I am moved when the national liturgy is performed by a true professional. It’s been thirty years today since Reagan voiced national grief over the Challenger accident. Rarely in the course of my lifetime have the unifying ties of culture so transcended the day-to-day grind of the division of power. Politics paused the frenetic spinning of its hamster wheel. For a few brave minutes, we looked up from the surly sacred chickens pecking at our idols and felt the touch of God.

7 Responses to “The politics of performance vs. the performance of politics”

  1. Madhu Says:

    Thank you for bringing up habit in your piece.
    Habit=we will be in Afghanistan forever=NATO forever=pushing UK toward EU even if a trade deal with the UK might be better than trade deals with countries whose wage slaves are a lot more slave than our wage slaves, etc., etc., etc.
    CBI is my favorite WWII theater not only–or even primarily–because of the I, but because it was a medical and logistics theater where many women served.
    If only the military coffee klatch were interested in the pedestrian, the hum drum, the boring, the carefulness of logistics over the exciting “man who saves the day” Lawrence of Arabia stuff….
    An aspect of the male psyche that confuses this not-male (admittedly slightly nutty) psyche.

  2. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Hi Madhu,


    Given how the establishment, especially the military, viewed our interventions in South Asia as a nuisance distracting from more important matters like managing the procurement cycle, I suspect desire for uninterrupted normalcy, getting along to get along, is the dominant (and largely gender neutral) drive of contemporary American institutions. Given how safe today’s world is, especially for routine, it’s probably to be expected that heroic time-serving has more appeal than unheroic (even dangerous!) squatting in the bush. A drone war is a commuter war after all. Why not have it be drones all the way down? Drones flying drones for drones.


    Perhaps this dampened adventurism is a positive force for world peace. Advances in how the fruits of war were distributed, like mature bond markets, made the ancient business of shilling for patronage a more dangerous game. You could subsist on government rents by buying into them without risking the hazards of office which might bring you too close to power, its glamor. and its terror. Since pursuit of violence-backed assets is a closer to the metal experience the further back in time you go, someone who simply wanted to peaceably profit off state largess might actually find themselves in battle. A real risk, since for most of history war was the state and the state was war.


    Of course there are dangers in the hum drum. It can develop an inertia-laced momentum of its own, one that might even become incidentally expansionist. We pursue process because process has become an end to itself. Frozen conflicts around the globe often seem to be more industry or carnival of ritual rather than vivid reference points of heroic diplomacy or full-blooded derring do. The ancient itch of the warrior may bestir the brave or bored to a life of danger-seeking tourism. However, the man of safety, who, by carefully staying fashionably close enough to front to be seen by his higher ups but strategically close enough to the rear to let Darwin carry off the heroic or simply unlucky chap, may be the winner in the survival of the fittest. He’s the one who survives to go on an breed more time-servers, while the hero may only get the t-shirt and an evolutionary dead end.


    It is the pedestrian man who wages the more enduring war of aggression. He seeks to expand his own turf in the age old game of office politics. Given one bureaucrat, this doesn’t seem to do much. Multiply that pedestrian man by a leisurely, even pedestrian, million and suddenly you have the politicking of small men acquiring the impetus to outward expansion you expect only from square-chinned self-appointed iron men of destiny. Work expands to fill the time allocated to it and, inevitably, expands outward where it can to make more of the turf out of which turf wars are made. Clive, after all, was a clerk, and Bengal, upon which CBI rested its I, was surrendered into his hands through the unheroic rootless careerism that marks the governing routine of much of the world.

  3. Madhu Says:

    Ahh, let me clarify. The pedestrian man or woman of CBI wanted to get home right quick. So, there is good hum drum and bad hum drum like all human endeavors. We can’t take the us out of us. China was big in the Nixonian Realist imagination, though, and even there I can,never seem to find the scholars that attempt to find the ‘Chin Pengs’ of that endeavor. It’s as if only DC archives matter. More accessible, yes, but intellectual negligence is a big problem….

  4. Madhu Says:

    I can never!….No, I can easily…
    GWU NSA goes into this problem and the changing scholarship. Anyway, great post.

  5. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Nixon’s realism was merely traditional American romanticism about China by other means, the belief that China was a vast canvas upon which America would paint itself large, only now somehow more “real”. Even this is but a subset of the reflexive American belief that, somewhere, somehow, within every man and woman on earth, is a cloistered American trying to get out, yearning to breath free.


    CBI was a theater powered purely by FDR’s own parochial China romanticism. Churchill’s romanticism, usually bubbling over when it came to the Oriental (or Eastern European even) Other, dried up when it came to the KMT. Cousin Franklin, it seems, felt he had some more primal tie to the Chinese people: his grandfather Warren Delano, after all, was an opium trader operating out of Canton. If that sounds like a fantastic leap, remember that Cousin Franklin had strange fantasies that moved continents.


    If DC archives matter, they matter in ways that its perusers are largely unaware of. The strange people of the world that Americans least understand is Americans. It’s sad when you dial a Frenchman to get an understanding about yourself, even though that understanding itself said more about France and its navel gazing than it said about America.


    The individual CBI man or CBI woman might want to get home right quick. The American abroad often feels as if he or she has been expelled from paradise and wants to return to the Garden. The bureaucracy as going concern however, an entity dedicated solely to the glory of its own self-propagation, wants to stay. Its collective effort in the turf war can be continuous even if, individually, its functionaries are in country, cushioned in air-conditioned splendor, for only a thankfully short time. The AfPak participant may stay but a moment but the AfPak industry intends to stay indefinitely.


    This is the hum drum operating at a higher level than simple good or evil. This is the hum drum as a sinister yet inertial force. CBI was unusual because it was fought in a box. Hence its routine-i-ness and the fact you could dispatch a placeholder like Louis “Chainsaw” Mountbatten as CinC save in the knowledge that he wouldn’t mess anything up except the locals.


    Imagine if Imperial Japan was a floating terror that could threaten India from the west instead of the east, along India’s traditional scenic invasion route. Here there’d be romanticism that would rouse even Churchill’s brandy soaked heart. He’d done his short spectacular there but I doubt Churchill was planning to take up permanent residence in the Hindu Kush. He, like many expatriates of his sunless isle, yearned to return to English dampness.


    The British Army as an organization, however, wanted to stay. Perhaps, in a way, it did. There’s something about Abbotabad that smells of dusty regimental headquarters in Yorkshire even if its current residents aren’t pallid horsey faced blokes with bad teeth. The British could cite the precedents so beloved of long-lived institutions. They should go to India. After all, Alexander had gone to India. Nadir Shah felt he should go to India. After all, Babur had gone to India. Babur felt he should go to India. After all, his great-grandfather Timur had gone to India. Timur felt he should go to India. After all, his wife’s ancestor Temujin had gone to India. Temujin felt he should go to India. After all, he followed Jalal-ad-din there and Jalal-ad-din had merely been retreating to territory his father had conquered. His father was one of the same Turks who’d routinized Islamic incursions into North India for three hundred years.


    Peel away the layers and you can see simple inertia and precedent driving bureaucratic intervention into remoter and remoter corners of the earth. Even if that inertia and precedent is borrowed from someone else’s hum drum. Buonaparte, an Italian Frenchmen who invaded Egypt through a mixture of political expedience (the French government wanted him out of the country) and strategic delusion (Egypt before Suez was the gateway to India?) dreamed of conquering his way to India. Trajan, an Italian Spaniard whose state had reduced Alexander’s Macedonia to a provincial backwater, could still wring his hands after he’d conquered his way to the Persian Gulf and despair that he was too old to be like Alexander and conquer on to India. Even Alexander, the teen idol of teeny-bopper European conquerer wannabes for two and one half millennia, though his propagandists didn’t trumpet the fact, simply wanted to be like his institutional forefathers Darius and Cyrus. Cyrus is rumored to have campaigned all the way to the Indus. Darius for sure crossed the Hindu Kush. Borrowed hum drum is even more wicked than self-generated hum drum. The heroism of routine by proxy.


    This is a habit of pedestrian plodders, bound by precedent, that transcends cultures. They boredly expand to fill all voids. Even that prototypical grey bureaucrat, Josef Stalin himself, wasn’t immune from the pull of borrowed organizational imperative. Congratulated on his troops reaching Berlin, Stalin growled that Alexander had reached Paris. Not the same Alexander, but not so different either.

  6. Grurray Says:

    I’m in the middle of The Machiavellians. All the recent talk about “What would Bill Buckley do?” got me curious. It’s an oddly rare book and difficult to procure. I wonder if that has anything to do with the revisionist movement at the National Review?
    One thing that caught me by surprise was his background of the Florentine political situation where he explained the role of the Holy Roman Emperor. I knew that the Pope crowned him in the tradition of Charlemagne, but I was unaware that the Emperor was an elected monarch. Somehow the propaganda of hereditary kingdoms led me to believe royally inherited power was the norm, but now I find out that usually in history it was the other way around. Kings were elected in many cases.

  7. larrydunbar Says:

    “Kings were elected in many cases.”

    Ha! Indeed! They were elected, but then by God and to serve the people, in their election before God.

    Of course when they were before God, they were also observed, as to be alone.

    Then, alone, they represented the people.

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