Politics 101 for Academics

Otto Von BismarkPolitics is the art of the possible.

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.

I’ve known both quotes for a while, but as I just now looked them up, I discovered they have the same source, Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, 1871-1890.


I’ve been thinking a lot about politics these days. I recognize my political skills can best quantified with a negative (or imaginary) number. I also think that academics are often charmingly naive about what it takes to make and pass policy, or, at its most basic, convince people of something that they are predisposed to disbelieve.

Last night I was going through the big stack of magazines that accumulated while Debby and I were on sabbatical in Copenhagen. I came across an amazingly concise primer on what it takes to run for office, by Michael Ignatieff, in a recent New Republic . By all means, go read it. I have shamelessly quoted some of his elegant turns of phrase (e.g., “you’re right to get a hearing as the person you are”). But it is better in the original.

None-the-less, here are the lessons I learned, digested and modified by an ecologists intellectual microbiome.

  1. Facts motivate, but don’t sell, policy. Arguments made in good faith don’t get you a hearing.  It continues to amaze me how many academics say “I laid out a flawless argument, if they don’t accept it, I’ve done my part.”
  2. Ideas are rarely criticized, the messenger is. The big fight in politics is over standing, your right to get a hearing as the person you are. Your diploma, your work, your position, is only a small part of your bona fides. You must also show that you are one of us.  Empathy?  A plus. Maybe all that time in the classroom will come in handy after all.
  3.  You must defend your life when people attack it. The best attacks against you have a sliver of truth. While you wrestle with the true bit, the falsehood resonates.  This often leads to the associated behavior of–hours or days later–muttering to yourself “What I should have said was….”.
  4.  To be trusted you must be authentic. People have to believe you are who you say you are. You have to own your life. (Try it. This is harder than it sounds.)  This is why the “lovable rogue” is such a common feature in politics. (i..e., He may be a bastard. But he’s our bastard.).
  5.  You must love the battle. Distaste for the roughness and meanness of politics fails on the campaign trail. People who think they are entitled to office, because they have accomplished great things, amassed great wealth, or belong to Mensa Mark II–lose.

So next time you are talking to a politician, of whatever stripe, note that they have a skill set, and a constitution, likely very different from your own. At the same time, if you want to get something done, in a committee, in a faculty meeting, at the city council, bear in mind Ignatieff’s wise council on the relative importance of facts vs standing, and growing a thick skin. And recall the nickname of one of the more influential legislators of the past century: Hubert Humphrey, the happy warrior.

hubert humphrey

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