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Debate: Intellectuals in politics

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Should intellectuals be more involved in politics?

Background and context

Intellectuals have historically played an important role in politics, engaging in a series of debates that helped organize the first modern armies and states, regional cooperation and social security systems. Intellectuals were also the ones to develop modern ideologies – from communism and democratic socialism to liberalism and capitalism – and played an essential role in defending or criticizing these ideologies. With the increasing specialization of modern bureaucracies, classical intellectuals have been forced into narrower fields of study and absorbed by academia and the research world. Intellectuals now tend to stay away from the day to day business of government except for occasional public interventions aimed at either criticizing or supporting particular policies and positions of the state. The discussion of the importance of intellectuals in politics has been revived by a series of revolutions throughout Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe that brought about the fall of several totalitarian regimes. Within these revolutions intellectuals were seen as playing an essential role in organizing and keeping the opposition alive, as well as guiding the democratization process immediately afterwards. Many of these intellectuals have joined the ranks of politicians and bureaucrats, with some having promoted to important positions of power (such as Vaclav Havel who became president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo, and even Radovan Karadjic in Bosnia). Others left the realm of politics disillusioned, seeking refuge in the arms of academia and civil society organizations, where they often formed a strong opposition to the new regimes that were set up.

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Argument #1

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Yes

If politics is ultimately a discussion space meant to provide solutions and guidance for a nation and its people, then intellectuals are natural actors in politics. Their ability to see the larger picture, to commit themselves to ideas and principles, to understand the complexity of certain problems and to stick to the higher moral ground for the good of humanity as opposed to the good of the few, makes them ideal candidates for high-ranking political positions. There they can use their intelligence not merely to reflect and publish for a limited audience, but actually to implement and direct change.

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No

Precisely because intellectuals treat ideas and situations as hypothetical and abstract, they are more likely to confuse the imaginary realm with the real world in which we must all live. Their mindset and training encourages the treatment of problems from positions that are neither practical nor realistic. Intellectuals tend to believe that discussions, historical awareness and specialized research alone can provide solutions to problems. This makes them less able to negotiate with irrational actors and interest groups. They can also be slow to exercise power decisively in circumstances when this is necessary in situations that could snowball into more dangerous crisis if too much time is wasted in dialogues.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Modern public intellectuals have become particularly savvy when it comes to thinking about politics more practically and pragmatically. This has come particularly with the growth of fields such as political science and international relations that prepare individuals for a potential dual career. Colleges such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or France’s ENA and Sciences Po equip their students to pursue an intellectual as well as a public service career; depending on ambitions, many of their graduates go on to become high-ranking political representatives. Many of these intellectuals are able to clearly draw the line between the realm of ideas and the realm of practical solutions. As a result they can use their background and intelligence to come up with creative solutions to problems. Encouraging more and more countries to vote public intellectuals into positions of authority would also create an international realm of dialogue that could promise to solve many problems in a rational and friendly manner. The alternative risks having presidents who are often not only a public embarrassment - nationally and internationally - but who also use and abuse power for personal interests.

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No

Intellectuals pose an equal if not greater risk than self-centred politicians. It was with the help of intellectuals that several totalitarian regimes came to power and that ideologies such as communism came to dominate a good part of the world, bringing harm to millions of people who were forced to endure harsh living conditions, punishments and the highest level of individual and collective control known to mankind. The persuasive power of intellectuals allows them to easily build a strong enough following to justify the social and political search for utopias at the cost of just about anything. There is thus no guarantee that electing an intellectual would necessarily provide for better policies or a better future. Managing a country often requires more than just a striking intelligence: it requires the ability to recognize important actors, to understand power games and make compromises without losing a sense of direction. Furthermore, the pragmatic intellectuals turned politicians act more as regular politicians then academics, and thus change their approach to problems significantly.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The increased participation of intellectuals in politics has had a very positive effect on the reform process, and on the ability of countries to develop and play increasingly important roles in the international arena. Intellectuals educated in the West are starting to take over increasingly important roles in their home countries - from ministers to presidents in countries as varied as Ukraine, Bhutan and Tanzania - and are radically changing the way politics is done to the obvious benefit of their country. They are better able to deal with issues of corruption, to give hope to the electorate and move them away from apathetic positions, to encourage public participation in politics and allow for a truly democratic process in decision-making and setting national priorities.

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No

What some call an increased participation of intellectuals in politics, others can interpret as simply an increase in the quality of public servants in general. Many of the ‘intellectuals’ that join their home ministries and even presidential office are in fact nothing but better trained public servants and government officials. These need not necessarily be confused with intellectuals, for their passions are often different than the ones exhibited by what we think of as traditional intellectuals: the world of ideas, books and writing. Many of these people are not original thinkers, nor do they have an innate inclination towards activities that we consider ‘intellectual’. In fact, many of them are trained in very practical aspects of their specific fields of activity and approach politics in much the same way as their colleagues. While it is indeed a positive thing to have politicians who are better educated, this does not by any means necessarily turn them into intellectuals.

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Argument #4

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Yes

As politics gets more and more complicated, especially in the international arena, intellectuals are better suited to lead and find solutions to increasingly complex problems. They have the ability to identify different sources of conflict, to connect larger social trends with specific side effects, to speak to different audiences and use the voice of reason to diminish harmful phenomena such as discrimination. These are all made visible by the presence of more and more intellectuals in the public realm through the publication of different opinion pieces and even talk shows. All these point to the importance of giving intellectuals more than the power of speech: a political position with real executive and implementation powers. One must not forget that it was intellectuals that inspired and help create the current framework of the state; they are also likely to be the ones to help redefine the functioning of the international arena.

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No

Heinz Eulau, in an article examining the role that public intellectuals have played in the past twenty years, argues that much of what these intellectuals have to say is based on opinion as opposed to actual ‘knowledge’. It is thus only as valuable as the opinion of each and every one of us. Fascination with public attention and recognition and the need to be recognized and treated as superior, as well as the tendency to take opposing positions simply to prove that they are able to argue any and every side, makes intellectuals often treat the public realm as a personal show-off space to feed their needy egos. Giving these intellectuals power beyond opinion writing and participation in talk shows not only encourages this, but takes it to an extreme that could become potentially dangerous. Giving too much power to intellectuals has historically proven to lead to anarchic situations or deeply intolerant regimes.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Modern intellectuals in power have proved their ability to keep their personal egos out of the political arena. A recent example of this would be Vaclav Havel, who has by many been considered to be the modern intellectual king. Havel’s has led his country over the most difficult ten years of the transition from communism to capitalism. He was able to transform himself into a practical, pragmatic politician who was also able to keep in mind the overall vision and values that should guide his country’s transformation, and became a very popular intellectual-turned-President. Havel continues to be well admired in both the intellectual/academic sphere, as well as the public/political and international sphere, and serves as a model for other countries in transition as well as other intellectuals-turned-revolutionaries.

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No

Havel has indeed gained incredible international attention since his participation in the Velvet Revolution that overturned communism in Czechoslovakia. While his intellectual appeal was recognized even before his transformation into a revolutionary leader and later a politician/president, his political skills have often been assessed in light of his previous intellectual achievements and not necessarily his actual performance as a president. In fact, his initial popularity declined significantly in the years that followed the revolution and reached a low point towards the end of his last mandate, with increasing criticism of his ability to manage the economy and deal with the necessary institutional reforms required for the EU accession process. While Havel continues to be paraded internationally to different universities and conferences, he seems to have lost much of his initial intellectual appeal and often appears as an exhausted intellectual who has been forced to make too many compromises that he simply was not comfortable with.

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