Political Intelligence

Today I’ve been at home, looking at the notes that have accumulated on my desk.  Many are semi-automatic notes I’ve written when I’m on the phone.  Often the notes are on post-its, very small post-its, sometimes post-it chains that I’ve stuck together to show that the notes are all from the same conversation.  The notes are often very informal, and they are undated.  There is no record of who I was talking with, so that as these notes accumulate the situations they refer to can easily become cryptic.  Sometimes I write on a small note pad, then tear the sheet of paper off the pad, with no particular purpose in mind.  Nonetheless, I do not throw these notes away.

Back in the day, some of this material might have been described as political intelligence.  This was information collected from political friends.  Leaders relied on their friends for understanding of local political conditions; the better connected and perceptive the friend, the more valued the friend was to the leader.  Before polling existed, political decision-making and leadership heeded these chains of intelligence, which stretched from the street to the drawing-room to the legislative chambers of the United States.  Intelligence might come from friends back home, from the political wife left behind, from a business or law partner, or a brother-in-law.  What a politician “knew” about national sentiment emerged solely from personal experience and from this subjective mass of relayed conversations, which being subjective and embroidered, were for that very reason, often productive of potent ideas.

One page of notes I’ve kept for months refers to a conversation I had with one of my sisters the first time we spoke after Trump’s election.  Her friends in the Twin Cities were very emotional.  Those who had voted for Clinton only to see Trump triumph were upset and scared.  They felt powerless and hated being on the losing side, in part because losing made them more vulnerable.  A current of hate was unleashed, with strangers saying horrible, threatening, and racist things.  Clinton supporters resented the winning side.

The losers were worried about what more they could lose.  Many were worried about Obamacare.  Some were looking forward to when they would turn 65, so that they could retire and be eligible for Medicare.

There was a kind of blinkered defensiveness among Democrats.  They still did not perceive the emptiness of the Democratic narrative, that is, the shortcomings of the type of “liberal progress” that establishment Democrats have gotten in the custom of being satisfied with.  How marvelous it would be, my sister said,  if officials were to go back to “representing” the people rather than “governing them” in the absence of any genuine identification.  This empty “governance” of the people in the abstract has become more or less habitual, the dominant M.O., which is a shame because it does not end up redressing the people’s acute needs.

Modern modes of communication have their place, but they have marginalized the human bonds formerly at the heart of the American political system.  These bonds were not necessarily egalitarian, but they connected American leaders and their constituents while enabling authentic political intelligence to circulate.  Even the scraps on my desk are eloquent reminders of how politics must change.

2 responses

  1. Gee, your post is quite well written, the ideas original and clearly expressed. I found the second-to-last paragraph particularly interesting. Yes, the premise that it’s enough to “govern” without “representing” or truly understanding voters’ needs was a huge contributing factor in Clinton’s defeat–i.e., the lack of plain ol’ human listening and gathering of “street intelligence”. . . . She never, ever should have lost Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

    • If our leaders were to head out Capra-style to learn what American life was really like, what would they find? What do Americans need? The answers are going to be different, dependent on community. Thomas L. Friedman’s recent article, “A Road Trip Through Rusting and Rising America,” points out that the communities drowning in want and those that are thriving are all mixed up together, in contrast to the bifurcated portraits of the nation that many of us have drawn in our minds.

      I think many Americans who are not in want, or who are not lost, have grown confused about whether they are obligated, or whether they desire, or whether it’s in their interest, to help “the other”: those who are suffering or who require social leadership to survive in this world. Members of the political class have grown confused and uncertain on this point too.

      Because our population is stratified, because its natural leaders are now geographically and socially distant from others who are ordinary / less privileged, it’s questionable whether we can engineer this kind of connection–whether the republic can cultivate leaders whose vision is unwaveringly centered on the well-being of the whole citizenry and whose vision of government’s role is modest and feasible.

      The future of government is smart, powerful, and small.