How to Understand Politics

"How to Understand Politics," revised version of 2007 Jefferson Lecture, First Things, August/September 2007.


For some time we have taken political science for granted, as if it did not require some nerve to come out of a university to tell everyone else how to understand politics. In my case I mean to show more modestly how to understand, not how to practice, politics. The understanding I propose comes from practice, not really from a university, and it has something to do with nerve—which is not often found at universities. Still less is it understood there.

A person with nerve thinks himself more important than he is. But how do we back up the reproof: How important is he, how important are we? This is the central question in politics. Politics is about who deserves to be more important: which leader from which party with which ideas. Politics assumes that the contest for importance is itself important. In a grander sense, politics assumes that human beings are important.

Political science today avoids this question. It is inspired by the famous title of a book by Harold D. Lasswell, published in 1936, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? The focus is on the benefits you get—on what, when, and how. It ought, however, to be on the who—on who you think you are and why you are important enough to deserve what you get. Poets and philosophers have an answer or at least address the question; science does not. Political science ignores the question of importance because it has the ambition to be scientific in the manner of natural science, which is real science. Scientific truth is objective and is no respecter of persons; it regards the concern for importance as a source of bias, the enemy of truth. Individuals in science can claim prizes, nations can take pride in them, but this sort of recognition is outside science, which is in principle and fact a collective, anonymous enterprise. And so political science, which by studying politics ought to be sensitive to importance, to the importance of importance, aims to abstract from individual data with names in order to arrive at universal propositions. Survey research is an example.

Yet human beings and their associations always have names; this is how they maintain their individuality. Names mark off the differences between individuals and societies or other groups, and they do so because the differences are important to us. You can think your way to an abstract individual or society without a name, but you cannot be one or live in one. Science is indifferent to proper names and confines itself to common nouns, but all human life takes place in an atmosphere of proper nouns. “To make a name for yourself,” as we say, is to become important. “To lose your good name,” to suffer a stain on your reputation, is to live thinking less well of yourself, or among others who think less well of you. Obviously human beings like to think they are important. Does this matter? Perhaps they have to think so if they are to live responsibly, for how can you do your duties if they are not ascribed to your name?

First Things