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The Politic: Borrow a French Word to Save the American Republic?

[First appeared March 25, 2013 on]

Different languages distinguish different sounds, as everyone knows, but they often pick out different nuances in ideas too. Classic examples of the first include that Chinese does not distinguish “r” from “l” and that Arabic does not discriminate “b” and “p.” With two words for “politics” the French underline a distinction that Anglophones could perhaps benefit from.

It seems that today many reasonable Americans avoid talking “politics.” A socially-conscious, ecologically-aware, articulate artist once remarked that he will not “talk politics” but will gladly discuss social and cultural issues. If politics keeps losing reasonable, intelligent people, how could the Republic survive or avoid a slide into factionalism or worse? I thought it a shame, and remembered two words that struck me years ago in French newspapers: “le politique” and “la politique.”

La politique is the everyday politics of arguing, competing, wrangling, cajoling, and jabbing. Le politique is politics in the classical sense of finding common ground on what matters most, in a way that brings people together despite differences or diverging interests. Le politique does not have such an ancient pedigree, as it was only recently brought (back) into French political discourse in the 70s first by intellectuals then by politicians, but it immediately struck a chord with the public.

“Le génie de l’homme politique qui sait ce que c’est que le politique c’est de savoir mettre en scène et en forme le pouvoir des citoyens agissant en commun.”
Marcel Gauchet, sociologist, historian, political philosopher,
Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron

The essence of a statesman, who knows what is the politic, is knowing how to direct and condition the power of the citizenry acting in common.

While the political looks at opinion polls and relative power before catering to the demographic most likely to bring victory, the politic looks for ways to include an entire population, creatively harmonizing between legitimate interests. While the political looks for issues to “split the opposition,” the politic looks for ways to unite or synthesize opposing ideas. For example, the politic would uncover the common ground between The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. See “Squaring The Tea Party & Occupy Wall Street.” While the political calculates and tinkers, the politic deliberates and invents.

The political views compromise as a sacrifice of principles, the politic knows that compromise is the essence of mutual respect. The political begins from a position of business negotiation; the politic has an eye for community mediation. The political views sacrifices as battle losses; the politic deems sacrifices the price of living with others in an interdependent way. The political values wit and dexterity; the politic values wisdom and integrity. One is the stuff of salesmanship, the other of statesmanship.

My proposal then is to begin using the word “the politic” to refer to the art of finding harmony on fundamental values in a way that brings people together–the kind of compromising that does not give up on principles, but rather discovers, or creates, higher principles on which nearly all can agree.

Perhaps it was this kind of unifying rhetoric that brought Barack Obama to such heights of popularity in 2007–08. We can also venture it was his failure (or the political system’s failure) to deliver on his promise of harmony that recently brought his and the entire government’s approval rates to such record lows.

Today Americans agree that creativity and compromise are crucial to good government. To that end, “the politic” could help us articulate that desire and nudge government a step towards it. And if a new word does not persuade politicians, it could at least kindle the important process of discussing long-term reform to which all can contribute.

2 comments on “The Politic: Borrow a French Word to Save the American Republic?

  1. AhmedRTeleb

    If we want more of the politic, I suggest we reevaluate the word government.

  2. Pingback: The Politic: Borrow a French Word to Save the A...

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