American Republic – A Theory and Defense of Politics

(“Flag” by Isabelle de Borchgrave. Photo by the author)

Following years working or covering politics at one level or another I began to read political theory and political philosophy to try to build a theoretical foundation for my practical experience. I had long been frustrated by the expanding gulf between my subjective understanding of politics and the popular (and elite) narrative of what politics is and what at its base drives political dynamics. Unfortunately as I went back further — The Politics, The Republic — I came to understand that the gulf began with the beginning of the Canon. The architects of Western political philosophy did not respect, and therefore did not care to understand, politics for itself.

I am not the first to assert this. Pascal’s blythe Pensées dismiss the ancients, but Hannah Arendt deliberately sequences the intellectual DNA from Plato to Marx to the apolitics imposed by Communist regimes.  She then attempted in her lecture Was ist Politik? (translated and published recently as “An Introduction Into Politics” in The Promise of Politics) to fill the vacuum of understanding about the fundamental nature of politics. But this will likely remain tangential to her larger corpus of work. And it was only a small piece of work against a gigantic, established body that needed debunking.

Taking inspiration from her, from J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors, In Defense of Politics by Bernard Crick (not incidentally a George Orwell biographer), I wrote my own treatise to define (and confine) politics and the political experience. American Republic is the result. It is short in length, terse in language, but even after additional years working at the international level (I completed the manuscript in 2007) continues to reflect my understanding and experience.

I have added to this very modest theory of politics because, in part, the corpus is so small, so little populated by those with the real-world subjective experiences of men and women in politics, and continues to be dominated by the pessimistic, the cynical, and the small. Even other works — such as Max Weber’s Vocation lecture that gave us the inimitable analogy of politics as the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” — remain ultimately cynical and detached from the real work of politics.

For politics is (as I noted in an earlier post), in the words of Vaclav Havel, “the art of the impossible.”  Arendt eerily presaged these words a generation before him, using the words “miracle” and “improbable” to describe what politics could achieve.  Politics allows for collective moral action and only through politics can the great progress of the ages be accomplished. Without politics human beings inhabit a great moral waste. Civilization as we comprehend it could not exist without politics.  I hope this small work advances this understanding.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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