I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

How do politicians understand their own status? It’s a question I’ve often wondered about without being sufficiently motivated to explore what I’m certain must be a significant literature investigating this question. I was made to ponder the question again by a lovely extract in Unwinding, by George Packer, describing the meritocratic self-regard of politicians and how this leads them to treats others working with Washington. From pg 65:

In Washington, elected officials considered themselves a higher breed. They were “principals,” had shown the moxie and endured the humiliation of standing before the public, and in their eyes, staff were a lower form of human beings—parasites that attached themselves to the front man for the ride. Connaughton knew that he had nothing to teach Joe Biden, a political natural who had been doing this for almost two decades, with a fingertip feel for what the American people wanted. Connaughton was thoroughly expendable, unless he could prove himself a workhorse.

It immediately made me think of this scene in The Thick of It, with Hugh Abbot expressing the bewilderment ‘normal’ people provoke in him and the contempt he feels for them:

It’s easy to see how politicians might come to feel strangely about the electorate. They are dependent upon them, yet largely  insulated from them. They take decisions which shape the lives of the public, while the fact of being decision-makers leaves them at a remove from those who these decisions impact upon. It seems plausible many of them see themselves as superior, even if simply in the polite meritocratic guise of being ‘high achievers’, while their role expects them to be continually polite to the public. The whole edifice of Westminster operates at an epistemic remove from everyday life, leaving politicians with a sense of themselves as seeing how the world really works. One which is perhaps indistinguishable from a pronounced déformation professionnelle, as the peculiar conditions which obtain at one particular phase in long history of a specific parliament are ontologised and taken as the conditions within which all democratic politics will necessarily operate. If you don’t believe me, we can meet at the centre ground to discuss it.

Those politicians who thrive enjoy a connection with ‘normal people’. They have a ‘finger tip feel’. They recognise emotional  patterns, learn to identity sympathies, become adept at interpreting concern. Or at the very least, they are able to successfully perform these capacities in a way which leaves them prone to being written about as charismatic, caring and connected to ordinary people. There’s a confirmation bias liable to exist here, as instances of successful connection are much more noteworthy than the countless occasions upon which a member of the public fails to be persuaded by a politician. Nonetheless, there is  significant interpretative work taking place, across a profound and growing structural and cultural divide. If that gap continues to widen, which is crudely speaking what I take post-democratisation to be, what does this mean for politicians whose political fortunes exist within and through it?

Yesterday morning I bought a copy of Hilary Clinton’s new book What Happened and was surprised to find myself gripped by it. I’d expected a turgid and unlikeable text which I’d skim through in order to supplement my understanding of the last Presidential election with the authorised account of the losing candidate. To my surprise, I’m enjoying the book and finding Clinton far more likeable than I expected. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I’m fascinated by it, for reasons which have nothing to do with the election.

It’s a disarmingly honest book which is doing multiple things, including protecting her reputation after last year’s debacle. However, I find it hard not to believe her claim that writing the book was cathartic. It charts the end of two defining features of her life over decades: buffering and triaging. The former is Jon Stewart’s term for what you “could see happening in the milliseconds between when Clinton was asked a question and when she answered; the moments when she played out the angles, envisioned the ways her words could be twisted, and came up with a response devoid of danger but suffused with caution”. As she points out on loc 1630-1651, criticism of her for this is manifestly gendered:

People say I’m guarded, and they have a point. I think before I speak. I don’t just blurt out whatever comes to mind. It’s a combination of my natural inclination, plus my training as a lawyer, plus decades in the public eye where every word I say is scrutinized. But why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our Senators and Secretaries of State—and especially our Presidents—to speak thoughtfully, to respect the impact of our words? President Obama is just as controlled as I am, maybe even more so. He speaks with a great deal of care; takes his time, weighs his words. This is generally and correctly taken as evidence of his intellectual heft and rigor. He’s a serious person talking about serious things. So am I. And yet, for me, it’s often experienced as a negative.

What for her is seen as disingenuity or inauthenticity is in Obama coded as, at worst, aloofness. To spend one’s life “keeping a tight hold on what I say and how I react to things” sounds exhausting and the “relief” she writes of having always found with “friends with whom I can be vulnerable and unedited” might now become a more general feature of a life which is in the process of slowing down and opening up. She writes on loc 398 of the sudden experience of freedom which the electoral defeat had granted her:

So when a friend said she was sending a box full of her favorite books . . . and another said he was coming up for the weekend even if it was just to take a walk together . . . and another said she was taking me to see a play whether I wanted to go or not . . . I didn’t protest or argue. For the first time in years, I didn’t have to consult a complicated schedule. I could just say “Yes!” without a second thought.

I read this as the end of triaging. This was most intense during a campaign in which an endless sequence of events was coupled with back-to-back radio interviews while travelling. But it was a feature of her life more broadly, in which the constant support of an extensive staff extended her capacity to fill her life with commitments, appointments and obligations. I found it fascinating to read these, admittedly still carefully polished, descriptions of her experience of the time (and of time) after the election. It’s only much later in the book that you start to realise that even then she wasn’t alone, being surrounded by all manner of staff even during what she experiences as an unprecedented withdrawal from the world.

If we read her book in this way, against the backdrop of her transformed life, it shines as a biographically framed account of a political creed. This book represents a form of life, in a manner we rarely see with senior politicians. It presents the worldview of a ‘moderniser’, one of the architects of a ‘centre-left’ now slipping into history, grounded in her own orientation to the world and understanding of her own life. This centrism was always ideological, albeit a strange ideology of moderation and empiricism (revealed as an ideology by its chronic failure to adapt to a world that has demonstrably changed on an empirical level). This book illustrates how centrism, as with all ideologies, organises everyday experience in a way that connects considered positions with situated affectivity. As can be seen in Clinton’s account of centrism as the emotional labour of politics. From loc 1831-1849:

Dramatic spiritual conversions aside, emotional labor isn’t particularly thrilling as far as the political media or some of the electorate is concerned. I’ve been dinged for being too interested in the details of policy (boring!), too practical (not inspiring!), too willing to compromise (sellout!), too focused on smaller, achievable steps rather than sweeping changes that have little to no chance of ever coming true (establishment candidate!). But just as a household falls apart without emotional labor, so does politics grind to a halt if no one is actually listening to one another or reading the briefings or making plans that have a chance of working. I guess that might be considered boring. I don’t find it boring, but you might. But here’s the thing: someone has to do it. In my experience, a lot of the time, it’s women. A lot of the time, it’s dismissed as not that important. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

This might all be mistaken. The book might be a careful part of a rebranding exercise, seeking to rectify the Clinton brand in order that the dynasty might continue when Chelsea runs for office. But if we accept that politicians are people, we confront micro-social questions about their lives and biographies which I’ve always found fascinating (not least of all because the nature of politics leaves politicians disinclined to help us answer them). I’m finding this book oddly fascinating and I now feel much more affection for Hilary Clinton than I did a few days ago.

Edited to add: I wrote this when half way through the book. The second half of the book is much less likeable and leaves me much less sympathetic to Clinton. It’s still a surprisingly interesting read though. 

If this is an accurate account, it’s remarkable that he seemingly remains devoid of bitterness about this treatment. From The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, loc 6251:

“You are not fit to be prime minister,” the widely unknown Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn. “It’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re not a leader. You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis. “You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed. “You’re not uniting the party. You’ve got no vision. The only person who can break this logjam is you by resigning,” pronounces Chris Bryant. “You’re not just letting the party down, but the whole country,” declares Labour’s only Scottish representative, Ian Murray. When he claims—without evidence—that his staff in Edinburgh have been “intimidated” by members of Momentum, another MP shouts “Scumbags!” Murray tells Corbyn to “call off the dogs.”

I love this passage by Paul Mason in the introduction to The Global Minotaur:

Most politicians cannot be theorists. First, because they are rarely thinkers; second, because the frenetic lifestyle they impose on themselves leaves no time for big ideas. But most of all because to be a theorist you have to admit the possibility of being wrong –the provisionality of knowledge –and you know you cannot spin your way out of a theoretical problem.

From Corbyn: Against All Odds, by Richard Seymour, pg 15:

Adam Phillips suggests that our rages disclose what it is we think we are entitled to. We become infuriated when the world doesn’t live up to our largely unconscious assumptions about how it should be for us. What might the fury of Labour’s right-wingers, as well as their media allies, tell us about their sense of entitlement? Their denial about the depths of Corbyn’s support among the members, their seeming belief that they have a right to be safeguarded against the critical and sometimes harsh words of activists, all suggests a zealously proprietorial attitude to the party.

As he goes on to observe, “at no point has the membership been anything other than an object for management and discipline”. This newfound capacity of the membership to impose a leadership from the far left represents a challenge to the depoliticisation of the party: the management of the membership has broken down and, with this, so too has the professional socialisation of much of the PLP. Perhaps the ensuing disorientation goes some way towards explaining the more self-destructive extremes of their behaviour? 

The promise we can find in this present mess is that a successful defence of Corbyn’s position leads to a longer term reinsertion of social movements into both internal party politics and the broader political system. From pg 21:

Corbyn, unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, understands the relevance of mass politics, the politics of social movement. He has appealed over the heads of parliamentarians and pundits, to the ordinary membership, trade unions and the wider left to support him in his job. That has been, confoundingly enough for his opponents, a successful. This suggests that parliament is not the end of politics, and that what takes place in its chambers depends in great part upon the organisation and political clarity of hundreds of thousands of people working outside them. That isn’t an insignificant yield for ten months in the leadership.

This is something that had been progressively lost over the lifetime of New Labour’s rule. From pg 28:

Members voted with their feet, becoming inactive or resigning, while voters began to boycott the polls in unprecedented numbers. As if the whole idea of fighting for a party that had become so symbiotically dependent upon the banks, business, the media and the less liberal wings of the state was so crushingly dispiriting, so lacking in promise, that millions simply gave up

I thought this was an interesting suggestion, from This Town by Mark Leibovich, concerning the tendency of a mendacious and stage-managed political culture to give rise to ‘straight talkers’. From pg 324-325:

The unquestioned Big Man on Campus in Tampa, at least for the first part of GOP-looza, was Chris Christie, the rotund Republican governor of New Jersey. Romney awarded the coveted keynote speaker’s slot to Christie, who had acquired (thanks largely to YouTube) a reputation for colorfully beating down the hecklers, reporters, and teachers’ union types who annoyed him. These tantrums had become as basic to the Christie persona as perma-tan was to Snooki’s. (Angering Christie, David Letterman said, was “like crossing a rhino.”) They also imprinted Christie with the reputation of a no-nonsense purveyor of hard political truths and granted him a status as the cathartic id of impatient conservatism and counterbalance to the superego Romney. 

Likewise, the press had granted Christie one of those coveted political badges of being “someone who tells it like it is,” who “gives it to you straight,” and all that. They come along periodically—Ross Perot wore it in the early nineties, John McCain during his “straight-talk express” days. Smitten observers reliably treat them with a holy-shit reverence befitting their stature as the first person in political history who actually tells the truth. And just as reliably, their acts wear thin.

From This Town, by Mark Leibovich, pg 163:

Calculations vary on how many former members of Congress have joined the influence-peddling set. By the middle of 2011, at least 160 former lawmakers were working as lobbyists in Washington, according to First Street, a website that tracks lobbying trends in D.C., in April 2013. The Center for Responsive Politics listed 412 former members who are influence peddling, 305 of whom are registered as federal lobbyists. Hundreds more were reaping huge, often six-and seven-figure salaries as consultants or “senior advisers,” those being among the noms de choice for avoiding the scarlet L. In addition, tens of thousands of Hill and administration staff people move seamlessly into lobbying jobs. In a memoir by disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the felon wrote that the best way for lobbyists to influence people on the Hill is to casually suggest they join their firm after they complete their public service. “Now, the moment I said that to them or any of our staff said that to them, that was it, we owned them,” said Abramoff, who spent forty-three months in the federal slammer after being convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges. “And what does that mean?” Abramoff continued. “Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.”

From The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 231. This strikes me as a really important point: politicians are insulated from external pressures while nonetheless having their behaviour shaped all the more by internal pressures, driving a political polarisation which can seem prima facie like the intensification of politicisation rather than its diminuation:

Thanks to the scientific gerrymandering of House districts and the voluntary “social sorting” of people with similar political beliefs into the same zip codes, incumbents are roughly 96 percent safe in general elections. So it is highly unlikely that a Tea Party Republican will ever be defeated by a Democratic candidate in the general election. The Economist has pointed out that House members, both Democratic and Republican, are safer in their districts than the crowned heads of the European monarchies, who have had a higher rate of turnover through death or abdication. The only threat to an incumbent Republican is a primary challenger who stands even further to the right. Thus has ideology replaced money, by no means in all races, but in the contests for a crucial fifty or sixty seats in the House of Representatives.

Barack Obama quoted in The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 63. The demands of fundraising for US politicians are exceptional but I assume a similar process can be found elsewhere, as an elite gradually becomes one’s reference group if this was not already the case. How else to explain the belief of UK MPs that they are poorly paid?

Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. . . . I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations. . . . I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.

And intelligence agencies contribute to that socialisation as well. From pg 87 of the same book:

Perhaps the most telling example of the relationship between President Obama and the Deep State comes from a March 2015 interview of John Brennan, his frequently embattled CIA director. Obama has shown Brennan great loyalty through two presidential terms. How did Brennan repay that loyalty—with a humble demonstration of gratitude and respect, perhaps? Obama, he said, did “not have an appreciation” of national security when he came into office, but with tutelage by himself and other experts “he has gone to school and understands the complexities.” The tone of headmasterly condescension is unmistakable, giving the listener ample grounds to wonder who is really in charge, the president or his national security complex. It is the inner workings of that national security complex that we shall turn to next.