8 Sep '15     home | previous

Wisdom and Politics

We have exceptionally smart and knowledgeable people in astrophysics, one of whom is Neil de Grasse Tyson. Do we have such exceptional people in the arena of political thought? And what about the knowledge of those running for President of the United States?

Knowledge about social development isn't science like astrophysics. It's about conflicting values and interests. The academic discipline known to students as poli-sci (political science) includes macro-economics, sociology, international relations, public administration, jurisprudence (the law), history and an understanding of rival political systems. This is a Big Picture, and in my opinion our best thinkers about society and politics need to have a good big picture. I emphasize best thinkers because most people do not have time gather a breadth and depth of knowledge about social developments as do those who make it their life work – academicians. But academics are specialists and rarely run for political office.

This brings us to the question of presidential advisors. Donald Trump missed a question about the Middle East put to him by the talk show host Hugh Hewitt (Harvard educated) a couple of days ago. The incident sparked debate among talking heads on CNN about how much presidents need knowledge and wisdom even though they have advisors. They agreed more or less that voters should elect presidents who have their own knowledge in good abundance – someone with a habit of reading. Presidents make choices amid conflicting advice. They need to have the humility to realize that they might benefit from listening, from gathering as much relevant information as they can. (Is your favorite candidate a good listener?) Then, drawing on their own Big Picture – their wisdom – they need to make a decision, rather than dither as do some intellectuals.

President Kennedy had the Harvard historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr as an advisor. Schlesinger in my opinion was wise. He opposed the planned invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy ignored his advice, and after the invasion he regretted the invasion.

So who are today's most knowledgeable people concerning social dynamics? And who are the overrated ones? To repeat myself, those with a better and more accurate Big Picture are probably closer to academia. Rush Limbaugh ranks low on the academia scale, and on my political wisdom list he ranks low. Another popular commentator, Bill O'Reilly, is less of a dummy than Limbaugh. O'Reilly has his no-spin spinning, his attempt to entertain, his hollow claim that he tells the whole story and his ill-tempered responses to opinions of his guests. He attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he studied history. In 1971 he graduated with honors. But having graduated with honors and a BA degree in history myself and knowing something about my own ignorance, I know how much more there is to learn after having received a BA degree. (The historian Barbara Tuchman had only a BA, and Schlesinger had only a masters, but they made up for it an abundance of original work and smarts.) O'Reilly is my opinion is often off-base, and I enjoy Fox News having him discuss his points with Charles Krauthammer, who appears as disturbed by O'Reilly's statements as I am. I don't totally dislike O'Reilly and think it's good of him to allow Krauthammer to sit with him and disagree. (Maybe Roger Ailes has something to say abou it.)

So who ranks high in knowledge about social-political dynamics and realities? Among others we have Francis Fukuyama, who studied political philosophy at Cornell, comparative literature at Yale, studied in Paris and then political science in Harvard. He went to work at the highly rated Rand Corporation think tank, and he has done a lot of research involved in writing books. A few of his many books on Big Picture subjects:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Fukuyama gets attention from his political science colleagues. He has evolved (changed his perspective over the years) as have many of us – meaning that he can look back at some point in his academic career and see imperfection. But Fukuyama does not attach himself to politicians the way that Schlesinger did, or that Harvard intellectual Henry Kissinger.

Another "big picture" academic who comes to my mind is the historian Margaret MacMillan. Problem is she is a Canadian.

Journalists who have good big picture perspectives also have academic backgrounds. Rightists denounce academically trained journalists generally, calling them elitists and believing these journalists should view the world as they do.

A highly regarded journalist is Fareed Zakaria. He studied at Yale and earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Government from Harvard University. Another journalist with a good Big Picture regarding politics is Peter Beinart. He is on Foreign Policy magazine's list of 100 top global thinkers. From 2007 to 2009 he was a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. Often he can be seen on CNN.

In the area of economics (an integral part of politics), Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman enjoy high regard from many, and both have won Nobel Prizes.

Wanting to be fair, I have looked for scholars at the Heritage Foundation, said to be the best-known and most influential right-wing think tank. It appears to be lacking scholars recognized as outstanding. Closer to the center but described as conservative is the American Enterprise Institute, which I gather has some competent scholars. More centrist still is the scholarship at the Brookings Institute. My apologies for not giving them whatever recognition they may deserve for their Big Picture perspectives.

We can, I think, put people with strong Big Picture academic backgrounds above businessmen, medical doctors, neurosurgeons, dentists, athletes, talk show hosts and others. A neurosurgeon who has never held political office might have more political smarts than some mediocre career politician, but he might be lacking in the breadth required for political wisdom.

All we can do is choose among those who are running. We need to exercise our own ability to question and to think. I'm for everybody voting their own interest as they see it – as blacks should have been able to do back in our history rather than wait for help from white politicians. How we view our own interest is a matter of ideology. If we can match our individual interests and the collective interest so much the better. Anyway, in electing people to political office who have the best of Big Pictures we are likely to rise above the danger of the politics of the small-minded.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.