In 2005, Michael Ignatieff left a teaching job at Harvard to enter politics in his native Canada with hopes of becoming prime minister.
He quickly came to understand how politics is different from academia. In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.
In academia, the goal is to come up with a timeless truth. In politics, timing is everything, knowing when the time is ripe for a certain proposal. In academia, the idea is to take a stand based on what you believe; in politics, the idea is to position yourself along a left-right axis in a way that will differentiate you from your opponents and help you win a majority.
In academia, a certain false modesty is encouraged; in politics, you have to self-dramatize a fable about yourself - concoct a story to show how your life connects to certain policies. In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.
Naturally, Ignatieff found the transition to politics more difficult than he imagined. He started his career well enough. He was elected to Parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader, and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.
But he was in over his head and the victim of inexorable historical trends. He was not an effective opposition leader. In his first national election, he and his party were crushed. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat. It was a humiliating failure that ended his political career.
Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” is the best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.”
Ignatieff was first invited to run for office by some backstage power brokers, even though he hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years. He agreed but wasn’t initially sure why he wanted to do it beyond some vague sense that it would honor his parents.
He was betrayed by old friends. He endured unearned and lofty condescension from political columnists. In Parliament, he became a total partisan, putting, as one must, loyalty to the group above loyalty to truth. He had no friends who were not in his own party. He loathed the other side.
“We never wasted a single breath trying to convince each other of anything,” he recalls.
He learned that when you are attacking your opponent, you have to hit his strengths because his weaknesses will take care of themselves. Political discourse, he came to see, is not really a debate about issues; it is a verbal contest to deny your opponents of standing, or as we would say, legitimacy.
“Of the three elections that I fought, none was a debate on the country’s future,” he says. “All were vicious battles over standing.”
During the course of his career he endured the character tests that all honest politicians face. “Politics tests your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know,” he writes.
He would look at himself in the mirror, wearing the suits that the image crafters had selected, and feel as though he had been taken over by some strange new persona he barely recognized. He went through each day completely dependent on the reaction of other people, minute by minute, second by second, to validate his performance. After poor showings at question time, he’d go to the washroom, no longer sure he was up to the job, confronting the mistakes that suggested he wasn’t. “I had never been so well-dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.”
But Ignatieff ultimately delivers a strong defense of politics. Politicians should never imagine themselves superior to the process they are engaged in. Politicians bind people together into communities and nations, he argues. To be a politician is to be “worldly and sinful and yet faithful and fearless at the same time. You put your own immodest ambitions in the service of others. You hope that your ambitions will be redeemed by the good you do.”
Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity often give up, because the life can be miserable. The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programs can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.