[Viewpoint] Putting the personal into politics

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[Viewpoint] Putting the personal into politics

The race for the leadership of the British Labour Party isn’t normally a world-shaking event. But the recent contest between two brothers - David and Ed Miliband - not only provided the material for a riveting family drama; it also illustrated some peculiarities of democratic cultures that often go unnoted - and the strange relationship between the personal and the political that is built into the hierarchy of democratic protocol.

Politics, or at least the exercise of power, was traditionally a family affair. Kings typically hankered after male heirs because power was vested through filial lineage and distributed through tribal affiliations.

Hereditary power did not necessarily make for warm and open family relations. Henry VIII was willing to execute two wives and overturn Christendom in pursuit of a son. There are examples, in polygamous societies, of royal concubines murdering each other’s children in order to assure the predominance of their genetic line. The Ottomans introduced the practice of “judicial royal fratricide,” supposedly to prevent civil war.

Whether it involved absolute loyalty or murderous rivalry, traditional politics was rarely divorced from personal passion. Not so in modern Western democracies, where personal passions are, at least in theory, supposed to be completely separate from the impersonal representation of group interests.

Democracy, in its Greek origins, began with the creation of a public sphere distinct from the family and its intense emotions. But modern democracies - especially those conducted on the Anglo-Saxon model - take this further, by attempting to separate not only the private from the public but the person from the politician.

The division is in a sense inscribed in the democratic spectacle. After presidential debates in the United States or Britain, the contenders, who may have been accusing each other of the most unforgivable of sins, shake hands vigorously and give each other genial and encouraging smiles.

No matter how much Barack Obama may have loathed the views of George W. Bush, he had to be initiated into state secrets by the former president, in a confidential - and undoubtedly genial - meeting. In parliamentary debates, fierce ideological battles may be the order of the day, but ad hominem attacks are off limits.

This is undoubtedly to the good and necessary to the conduct of orderly democratic life; but to those not used to it, the ability to combine enmity with bonhomie can seem counter intuitive.

Indeed, it may be that the transition from passionate to impersonal politics is one of the most difficult challenges facing democratizers everywhere.

In pre-1989 Eastern Europe, for example, politicians’ ideological positions were seen as inseparable from their moral or human self. Those who were on the wrong side of the political divide were not only guilty of erroneous views; they were seen as wrong in their essence and therefore to be condemned and hated.

The idea that you could treat political enemies jovially and perhaps have a drink with them after hours - or enter into a coalition government with them - can seem not only unnatural but even a bit indecent, in such circumstances. Indeed, in some young democracies, or more volatile cultures, the suspension of personal feeling is not always successfully maintained.

Just last year, one could witness fistfights in parliaments ranging from Iraq to Taiwan, Turkey and, most spectacularly, Ukraine. To us, such behavior looks untoward or even uncivilized; to the participants, it is probably experienced as a natural overflow of righteous feeling.

Clearly, parliamentary brawls are not a desirable modus operandi. But how far can the separation between person and politician be taken - and to what extent do we really give it credence?

The Miliband race was an extreme example of what might be called counter-nepotism - the attempt to abstract the politician from all private attachments. As the two brothers sat on platforms together, challenging each other’s views, they tried to maintain the double fiction that, on the one hand, there was no special bond between them and, on the other, that their sometimes fierce disagreements did not taint their fraternal affections.

For a while, everybody played politely along; but the tricky double-think involved in this was exposed when the younger brother, Ed, won the leadership, by a razor-thin margin, in a last-minute upset.

Suddenly, this didn’t seem quite right. In the media, comparisons to Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright and to various Shakespearean tragedies began to abound.

David Miliband’s decision to retreat from front-line politics made it evident that a symbolic beheading had taken place - and one wonders if Ed Miliband won’t be haunted and therefore hampered, a la Macbeth, by the psychological violence he committed.

In judging candidates for high office, we are encouraged to eschew “personality politics.” In practice, few of us can manage to compartmentalize our perceptions - and, perhaps, doing so would not be desirable.

*The writer is the author of “Lost in Translation” and a former editor of The New York Times. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.


By Eva Hoffman

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