Obama and Clinton: Two Conceptions of Politics

It is an interesting coincidence that while the Democratic presidential nomination is going on, I am simultaneously taking a political philosophy class organized around the question of what is politics?

One conception of politics depicts politics as what we would today typically think of as “political,” namely the struggle for power, negotiations, compromises, etc. The other conception of politics, which isn’t mainstream but is by no means extinct in America, is what I would tentatively call a republican conception of politics. By republican I do not mean to refer to the political party or its ideology. Rather, I mean a conception of politics that goes all the way back to Aristotle, a view of politics as an activity taken up by the citizentry as a whole to achieve the common good.

Another way of stating the distinction is to say that the first conception is formal or procedural, while the latter is substantive or normative.

Thus far, it looks to me Hillary Clinton has consistently offered a formal conception of politics in her speeches. She constantly emphasizes that she has had the political experience, that her tenure as the First Lady and Senator has taught her how to achieve her political ends, that she is best equipped to fight the inevitable “Swift-boating” of the Republicans. What she is trying to say, at least I think, is that she is well-trained in the craft of politics: the sheer struggle for power, the maneuvers needed to get what one wants, the skills necessary to cope with inevitable conflict. This kind of rhetoric suggests that Clinton thinks that politics is just a process in which conflicts over power happen, and that if Democrats want their policies implemented, they need someone who is a realist politician, in the Machiavellian sense. Note that I am not using the word “Machiavellian” in a pejorative sense.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to me to offer a “republican” conception of politics; that is: politics as a collective, communal effort to achieve some good. Thus, he constantly emphasizes politics as an unified endeavor that transcends mere partisan struggle for interest and power. He is much more likely to invoke the fact that politics is a process of people’s coming together to do good for the entire community. This is a message that has consistently appeared in all of his speeches. The “change” that he constantly alludes to is not so much a change as a harkening back to republican ideals of collective action in the pursuit of some public good, an ideal that goes as far back as Aristotle.

Coincidentally, or perhaps rightly so, both the realist and the republican conception of politics, as exemplified by Clinton and Obama, find expression in Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s realist elements come out most famously in The Prince, but his republican ideals are just as strongly expressed in a less-known, but no less important work, The Discourses On Livy.

The fact that the realist and the republican conceptions of politics are united in Machiavelli is important for one reason: mainly to show that the criticisms directed toward both Clinton and Obama all miss important aspects of politics. Politics is neither strictly republican nor strictly realist: it includes both. Thus, the criticism of Hillary as power-monger misses the point that politics is at a minimum about the struggle for power. The criticism of Obama as someone who’s all bark and no bite misses the point that politics is not merely a struggle for power.

It’s important to recognize that these two conceptions of politics need not be inherently irreconcilable, that any conception of politics which overstates one or the other do not really capture what politics is.

So once again I go back to my previous point: that the criticisms against both candidates are in some ways baseless. I see both of them as offering a distinct conception of politics, each one just as valid and necessary as the other. Ideally I would like to see them run as a team, because that would unite these two strands of political thinking. However, the prospect of that is not likely because of the apparent hostility between the two, which is surely going to increase now that the Clinton camp believes that the only way they are going to be viable is to become much more negative in its tone and rhetoric.


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