Elections

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December 23, 2016

Or take one of the most vexed issues of our time: climate change. There is a consensus among scientists (though there are exceptions) that this is an immediate and pressing issue, that human activity—the use of fossil fuels—is a prime cause and that remedial action is possible. Others accept that the climate is changing but are skeptical of the man-made explanation. Others deny that there is any unusual, unprecedented, or worrying shift in climatic conditions. Politicians have to assess the quality of these arguments and act accordingly, aware also of the economic implications of any course of action they adopt. The wisdom or foolishness of whatever decisions are taken will eventually be judged by our children and grandchildren—let’s say Mr. Trump’s grandchildren—not by us.

It’s easy to inveigh against professional or career politicians, and of course some are always duds, fools, or scoundrels, but we should also recognize that politics is a fine art or craft that, like other arts and crafts, requires a long apprenticeship. William Gladstone, the great 19th-century British prime minister, once said that a man might as well start training for the ballet at the age of 40 as for the Cabinet; he had no hope of success. Most of the more effective American presidents of the 20th century were career politicians: the two Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. At first glance, Eisenhower and Reagan might seem exceptions, but Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander and then the first military head of NATO, was a very political general, and Reagan had eight years as governor of California before he entered the White House. All learned from experience that politics is the art of the possible, and that political choices are seldom between black and white, but between different shades of gray.

Edmund Burke, the voice of intelligent Whig conservatism, wrote of politics: “Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science because the real effects of moral causes are not immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation…. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions…. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself…is a matter which requires experience…”

Quite so: Over to you, President Trump.

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