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A talent for politics? Academics, failure, and emotion

Sometimes a fragment of a book manages to lodge itself in the back of your mind. An idea, a description, a phrase…just something, and often completely unrelated to the core story, attaches itself to your mind like an intellectual itch you can’t quite scratch. My ‘itch’ stems from a passing comment towards the end of Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes (2013) in which he suggests a certain incompatibility between politics ‘as theory’ and politics ‘as practice’ which effectively ensures that successful academics (or political theorists as Ignatieff more precisely argues) rarely make successful politicians. Cicero, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, James Madison, de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber all demonstrated huge capacity for writing on the theory and nature of politics, but their forays into the political arena themselves were marred in failure or defined by dissatisfaction. ‘Why theoretical acumen is so frequently combined with political failure’ Ignatieff suggests ‘throws light on what is distinctive about a talent for politics.’

The candour, rigour, willingness to follow a thought wherever is leads, the penetrating search for originality – all these are virtues in theoretical pursuits but active liabilities in politics, where discretion and dissimulation are essential for success. This would suggest that these theorists failed because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut when flattery or partisan discipline required it of them. Equally, however, theorists may have lacked those supreme virtues that separate successful politicians from failures: adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna. (Fire and Ashes, p. 170-171)

This emphasis on ‘adaptability’, ‘cunning’ and ‘rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna’ – what might be termed the ‘great scholar, poor politician thesis’ – suddenly took on added resonance in the wake of the United Kingdom’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. Not only had the Leave campaign been founded on the explicit rejection of expert advice, but at a more specific level it had also exposed a gap between academics and the broader public. Writing in the THES David Matthews suggested that ‘the referendum result revealed that there was amongst universities and those who work in them a profound sense of dislocation from broader society.’ James Wilsdon, Director of Policy, Impact, and Engagement at the University of Sheffield suggested that ‘we do need to ask ourselves some searching questions about how that [gap between the academy and the public] has grown up.’

To some extent the basic argument that a gap has emerged is open to challenge. The simple fact that most British academics are left leaning and pro-European and therefore generally campaigned in favour of ‘Remain’ is, surveys would suggest, broadly accurate. It is also factually correct to state that 51.9% of those members of the British electorate that voted were in favour of ‘Leave’. But to infer from these facts that the academy therefore ‘failed’ is to adopt a rather simplistic line of argument. The role of the social and political sciences is to help promote a balanced, accurate, and wherever-possible evidence-based debate but if the public decide to dismiss that scholarship then that is not ‘failure’, but the simple price we pay for living in a democracy.

And yet Ignatieff’s naughty ‘great scholar, poor politician thesis’ keeps nagging at my mind. By anyone’s reckoning the debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union had to be an opportunity if not to convince the public of the benefits of continued membership, then at the very least to showcase the relevance and value of the social and political sciences. All the aftermath rhetoric of ‘soul searching’ and ‘identity crisis’ and the need for experts (including academics) ‘to reassert their value to society’ left me feeling that maybe, just maybe, we had failed to display exactly the adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna that Ignatieff highlighted. Indeed, if expert research can be so easily disregarded in relation to an issue as important as membership of the European Union then why bother to fund the social and political sciences?

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at a town hall discussion in Victoria, BC by Georges Alexandar. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at a town hall discussion in Victoria, BC by Georges Alexandar. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

To make things worse, surveys conducted in the wake of the referendum suggested that levels of public trust in academics had declined significantly and that they were now seen by large parts of society as part of ‘the elite’ or ‘the establishment’.

But if – and it is a big ‘IF’ – the academy failed in some way and might therefore be expected to shoulder some of the blame for failing to get their message across, if the decision to ‘leave’ represents something of a deeper cultural defeat for universities as many have suggested, then the rebuilding of public trust in academic experts represents a far-reaching challenge. Indeed, as the work of Sir Bernard Crick repeatedly attempted to emphasise, it is the role of scholars, intellectuals, and the universities to ‘speak truth to’ both ‘power’ and ‘the public’ and to act as a counterweight to the embedded position of elites, markets, and other dominant institutions. The question then is what – specifically – might have gone amiss in the relationship not between the governors and the governed, but between the professors and the public? And at the root of any answer to this question has to be a focus not so much on the evidence or data but on the basic skills of political communication and social engagement. If there was a ‘problem’ that demands reflection – and possibly some strategic response – then it has to focus on ‘the art of translation’ when it comes to the framing and provision of academic knowledge.

A slightly bolder argument might suggest that in many ways what the social and political sciences displayed as a failure to learn from the core insights of the social and political sciences in recent decades, especially in relation to the link between emotion and fact. Studies have repeatedly revealed how firmly held beliefs tend to be incredibly resilient in the face of conflicting ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’. Indeed, the more you bombard an individual, community, or section of society with ‘data’, ‘facts’ and ‘research’ the more they are likely to hold on to preconceived ideas and assumptions. The ‘problem’ then for academics within the Brexit debate was that they – quite understandably  –adopted a facts-based approach that may well be the dominant idiom within higher education, but that possibly failed to find any traction in the emotive sphere of cultural politics and national identity. The ‘facts’ were not grounded and the projected ‘risk scenarios’ meant little to large sections of the public that thought they had little to lose or put at risk anyway. Although irrational from an objective scientific perspective, spurious claims to ‘take back control’, ‘regain power’ and put the ‘Great’ back into all sorts of things including ‘Great Britain’ offered powerful emotional triggers that scholarship appeared unable to challenge or dissect. As a result, academics in favour of remaining were rapidly defined by the ‘leave’ campaign as part of an elite that benefitted from exactly the ‘gravy train’ that Brexit was intended to bring to a halt.

Returning to Ignatieff’s naughty little thesis, might it be that academics really did fail to display exactly that mixture of adaptability and cunning – ‘those supreme virtues’ – that might allow them to have slightly more traction in the political sphere?

There are no simple answers to complex questions and this is certainly a complex question, but we can at least use Igantieff’s ‘great scholar, poor politician thesis’ as a useful intellectual reference point from which to make at least three observations. First, there is something to be said for academics receiving more professional training on ‘the art of translation’ and ‘engaged scholarship’. How do we engage ‘with multiple audiences in multiple ways’ without over-simplifying, dumbing-down, or compromising our academic credibility? There is (secondly) an anti-thesis that legitimately questions the role of academic experts within political debates and campaigns. Far better, some might say, not to risk dirtying one’s hands within the grubby world of politics, especially if it involves locating research findings within emotive language. The tricky context for this ‘dirty hands, clean research’ argument is that ‘society’ seems to be demanding more of academics in terms of evidence that publicly-funded research is a worthwhile public investment. Squaring the circle need not involve dirtying one’s hands or ‘selling out’ in terms of risking the credibility of one’s research, but a more sophisticated and subtle understanding of the need to ground or frame the available facts and research within the ‘everyday lives’ of the public. This would involve a more granular analysis, more refined prescriptions, and an acceptance that issues that may be ‘positive’ in terms of aggregated effects across time can also be ‘negative’ when viewed from the short-term and immediate position of local communities.

In short, maybe the Brexit campaign suggests that academics need to display just a little more adaptability and social awareness – possibly even a dash of non-partisan political cunning – otherwise the gap between the professors and the public is only likely to grow.

Featured image credit: spiral notebook with subject dividers by theilr. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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