Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Misleading Metaphor of Political "Capital"

A folk belief in contemporary politics is the notion of "political capital." The idea is that a political leader begins with a certain amount of "political capital." The leader is well-advised, the belief goes, to shepherd that capital well, deploying it in careful measures only towards the highest aims of that leader. In deploying it, one trades that capital for the hope of achieving one's highest aims.

The necessary corollary of this approach is that a leader avoids applying herself to anything other than her highest aims. Everything else, even if desirable, must be sacrificed, so as not to use up one's political capital. Thus, if one wants health care, one should not try to do too much for gay rights.

I believe that this approach is usually wrong. Applying one's power towards an end might in fact generate more power, demonstrating to the other side the power of a leader's constituents, and the strength of her resolve. It also generates goodwill among one's followers, necessary to fight the political battles ahead.

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