What is Politics? More Thoughts on Matt Bai

by John Sides on May 13, 2009 · 13 comments

in General Politics,Media,Political science

A couple months ago, Henry linked to this passage from New York Times writer Matt Bai:

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

I took my licks, as did Andy. In my post, I wrote:

And his description of “politics” — “the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity” — sounds a lot like, well, life in general, not politics in particular. (It’s not my definition of politics either, but that’s a separate post.)

This is that post. I think Bai’s definition of politics is deeply problematic. A good litmus test of any definition of politics is to imagine that your spouse has come home from work. You say, “How was your day, dear?” And your spouse says, “Not so great.” You say, “What happened?” And your spouse says, “Oh, you know. Office politics.”

If we think about what is meant by a phrase like “office politics” or “church politics” or politics in any setting, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t mean what Bai think it means. If you said to your spouse, “Office politics?”, he or she wouldn’t say, “Yeah, Betty in the next cubicle is attempting to triumph over her own disorder and insecurity.” Chances are, office politics would mean something like this: “You remember how Betty wants to chair the office picnic committee instead of me? Today she went around bad-mouthing the job I did last year so that everyone would support her.”

And that is the essence of politics: people have conflicting goals, and so a process unfolds by which they attempt to realize their goals. That process is politics. Textbook definitions of politics emphasize similar features:

Politics is the process through which individual and groups reach agreement on a course of common, or collective, action—even as they disagree on the intended goals of that action (Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser).
Politics refers to conflicts over the character, membership, and policies of any organization to which people belong. As Harold Lasswell, a famous political scientist once put it, politics is the struggle over “who gets what, when, and how” (Lowi, Ginsberg, and Shepsle).

These definitions contrast sharply with Bai’s. Politics involves a collective (a polity, government, office, church, etc.), not atomized individuals. Politics involves disagreement over goals within that collective (up to an including even war; hence Clausewitz), not individuals who are striving to overcome personal failings. To be sure, the personal qualities of political actors can be consequential, but they are not the essence of politics. Betty may be insecure, or arrogant, or confident, or competitive, or disordered, or nice, or mean, or left-handed, or blonde, or Sagittarius, or whatever. More importantly, those qualities may help her or hurt her. (Indeed, even Bai’s thinking about personal characteristics is odd: why must individuals triumph over their arrogance or competitiveness? Don’t many politicians succeed in part because of arrogance and competitiveness?)

It’s funny that Bai himself articulates this particular definition. The title of his bookThe Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics—suggests something much closer to the textbook definitions (conflict, etc.). Perhaps something about political science, to which he is reacting in that passage, pushes him to emphasize things that are difficult for political scientists to study and thus conclude that political science research is largely irrelevant.

Where does Bai’s definition come from? Perhaps spending a lot of time covering politics makes you more vulnerable to thinking about it in terms of individual politicians and their foibles. After all, it is the job of journalists and political writers like Bai to observe politicians frequently and at close range. You get to know them, at least to a degree. And you know that writing about politicians as individuals—their personalities, their experiences, their hobbies, their vices—engages readers. (See the study discussed here. Another of Bai’s pieces will illustrate.) So a “personalistic bias” emerges, one focused on people, rather than the overall process of politics. The fundamental attribution error also emerges, whereby political outcomes are explained in terms of individual attributes, rather than the interaction among individuals or some other situational feature. To be sure, I’m describing a tendency, not a deterministic process. But it seems operative.


David Martin May 13, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I think you’re being a bit unfair. (Granted, so is Mr. Bai.)

I see his definition of politics as (potentially) referring to a collective effort of humans attempting to come to some kind of agreement in spite of their “disorder, insecurity, etc.” This would look at politics from the point of view of an individual, but takes into account that collective goals are at stake.

Perhaps this is just wishful thinking in service of my conciliatory instincts, but it seems like you’re beating up a straw man here.

John Sides May 13, 2009 at 12:37 pm

David: Maybe. But attributes like “insecurity” and “arrogance” and “competitiveness” and “infidelity” are the property of individuals, not collectives. That is how I interpret Bai. And why I don’t think he represents a straw man.

If you’re right, however, then Bai’s antagonism toward political science is even more mystifying, since concepts intrinsic to such agreements being reached — like collective action, strategic behavior, etc. — are at the core of the discipline.

John Sides May 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm

One other thought, David: even if your interpretation of Bai is correct, it still strikes me that collective agreements don’t intrinsically demand humility, fidelity, or the opposites of the other attributes he suggests. For example, plenty of collective agreements are forged thanks to a species of infidelity: when legislators cross party lines to support a bill, thereby producing the necessary majority.

William Ockham May 13, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I think Bai is expressing a very conventional Hobbesian view of politics. Your claim that he is using personal characteristics seems quite odd to me. Let’s take a look at each word:

disorder – if this were a personal characteristic, it would have to be plural (i.e. their own disorders). This is a pretty strong indication that Bai is talking about humans in a collective sense. A lot of political scientists would agree that triumphing over disorder is a key feature of politics.

insecurity – likewise, as a personal characteristic, it would be plural. It makes more sense to interpret the word to mean collective insecurity.

competitiveness – this one could go either way, personal characteristic or shared.

arrogance – is much more commonly thought of as a personal characteristic, but a bit of quick googling turned up a number of references to collective arrogance

infidelity – this is the one that strikes me as odd, but if he had meant to assign it to individuals, he would have said infidelities.

I don’t really agree with Bai’s larger point (opposing “tactile and visual” to “empirical” seems wrong-headed), but he’s not saying what you think he’s saying.

Lee Sigelman May 13, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Let me get this straight: Individual characteristics are plural and collective characteristics are singular. Oh, I see. Yes, of course. That settles it.

Eronarn May 13, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Where does Bai’s definition come from?


“the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity”

This sounds to me like politics-as-entelechy. Humans are disordered and insecure et al. and it is is by assembling into political systems that we attempt to triumph even though we retain our individual negative characteristics (that is, a whole greater than the sum of its meager parts). I think it’s a very artistic view and that it doesn’t actually describe politics. I don’t think it’s a wrong statement, per se, but I do think it’s not a good definition of politics.

William Ockham May 13, 2009 at 8:46 pm

I’m talking about grammar folks. Look at the sentence and just cut off everything after the word “disorder”:

Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder.

Politics is, after all the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorders.

To me, those two sentences clearly have different meanings. In the first, humans share a condition of disorder that affects them as a collective. In the second, each human individually has a disorder. Bai’s point would have been clearer if he had used humanity, a mass noun, instead of the simple plural, like this:

Politics is, after all, the business of humanity attempting to triumph over its own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity.

John Sides May 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Well, we’re verging on the Talmudic here, but I’ll keep the ball rolling.

Let me say, first, that all this parsing and re-parsing tends to confirm that this is simply not a clear or effective definition of politics. Compare Bai’s to the two I quote from textbooks that thousands of college freshmen read every year in their first political science course.

But let’s assume Bai meant what William is suggesting. Even still, his definition isn’t very good. Yes, politics is fundamentally a collective endeavor, if that’s what Bai is trying to convey. But the point of politics isn’t to triumph over those qualities. The point of politics, from the point of view of politicians, is to win the competition, not triumph over competitiveness. It is to define the order, not triumph over disorder. It is an attempt to encourage fidelity on your own side, and encourage infidelity on the other, not triumph over infidelity in any grand sense. Etc., etc.

Even if Bai means these terms to apply to a collective, his definition still misses the essential role of disagreement and conflict.

Jim May 13, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Collectives are made up of individuals. You are both right.

Jim May 13, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Sorry about the double posting. The internet Gods work in ways unfathomable to mere mortals.

I just want to add that to me, politics is endless and useless arguing over meaningless trivia while the barn burns down, the livestock are dying and/or running away, and the family is in danger because the flames are spreading to the house.
Statesmanship is realizing that there are more important issues to be attended than whose ego prevails, and it attempts to save the family, the livestock and the barn without worrying about who is right and who is the ass.

Joel May 14, 2009 at 2:02 pm

yes, this is a good point. to the extent that colloquial usage is at all relevant (as implied by your imagined dialogue, John), then it inserts negative connotations into the definition of politics.

Jonathan Bernstein May 14, 2009 at 9:26 pm


Why should we consider “the point of view of politicians” to be the correct or important one?

John Sides May 14, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Jim: I agree that this comment thread has gotten pretty deep in the woods. But my goal in engaging Bai is that the media plays a crucial role in keeping the barn from catching on fire, as it were, and I think it’s important to think critically about whether someone like Bai’s conception of politics facilitates that.

Jon: I highlighted the POV of politicians because they’re often the ones making the politics. I could easily broaden that to include other actors, however.

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