Comparing modern U.S. politicians to historical German ones. (Not who you think.)

One of the things I have noticed in my reading about Otto von Bismarck–which is, let me emphasize, not at all thorough–is how much his style of politics reminds me of President Obama’s. He was a master of compromise, deal-making, and piecemeal political maneuvering. He was very pragmatic in his decision making, much as Obama is.

Politics nowadays are much less hospitable to this sort of thing than they were in Bismarck’s day. The motto of the Republican freshman class of 2010 was “No compromises.” There are fewer and fewer deal-makers in either executive or legislative capacities Such hard-line stances and theatricality are the hallmarks of politics today, and it is a small wonder; as I have said, such tactics favor the somewhat unpredictable charismatic authority of which Max Weber wrote. For instance, as described in a 1989 article by Peter Boyer:

The House, which limits the length of debate over legislation, has a rule allowing so-called special orders –permission to give lengthy speeches at the end of each legislative day. These have long been a means by which congressman could read into the Congressional Record various matters of importance to their constituents, usually matters of trivia. But [Newt] Gingrich, concerned less with the Record than with the potential television audience, [Emphasis mine] began to use special orders regularly as his platform for advancing ideas and, especially, for attacking the Democratic majority. 

At first, his approach gave the impression that he was a brave young crusader, taking on the opposition in heated floor encounters, but, in truth, most of his diatribes were delivered before a virtually empty House.

So do the politics of Weber’s “legal authority” give way to “charismatic authority”. (Frankly, though, Gingrich is not very charismatic. But he thinks he is.)

 The pragmatism, compromise and negotiation aspects of politics are not very interesting to people today, and so they do not pay attention to them, and so politicians do not emphasize them. Of course, it was not interesting to people in Bismarck’s time, either, but there was no medium like television to bias things in favor of the charismatic. Thus, people’s judgments were based more on who accomplished what.

It is also the case that Bismarck functioned in a very different political environment than does Obama. It was not a democratic state, and Bismarck was himself was fairly hostile to democracy. The pool of people who could elect or appoint Bismarck to things was far smaller than the same is for Obama. Yet, the art of politics as practiced by both men seems to me to be very similar. Bismarck may have been accountable only to the Kaiser, whereas Obama is accountable to the entire U.S. voting population, but in terms of what they each had to do to keep their employers happy, they use much the same techniques of statesmanship.

What’s interesting about Obama is that he is also a very charismatic man, but still seems to have a very calculating and realistic mind. This is a very rare quality, as most charismatic politicians rely purely on their instincts, their passion, for their power, and as such seem like “loose cannons” to all those not taken in by their personalities. Sarah Palin is an example of this.

Another way of combining charisma and technocratic maneuvering is simply to have one person specialize in the former and one in the latter running on the same ticket. This was basically what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did. Bush provided the charismatic “everyman” charm to get elected, Cheney provided the political know-how to accomplish their ideological goals once in office.

Such a method is effective, or at least, it would have been effective if their ideology itself had been more sound. As it was, it paved, the way for six years of Republican dominance. (After the 2006 election, they lost  much of their ability to implement their agenda.) 

The point is that Obama is actually, in a sense, a much older style of politician than we ordinarily see, even though he appears to rely on his charisma for his appeal. And obviously, Obama is very different ideologically and morally from Bismarck. I am addressing only his technique as a statesman here.

Lastly, I want to remind readers again that I am only an amateur historian, and therefore may be mistaken about things. If I have made any error or debatable assertion, please tell me in the comments. Benjamin Disraeli and William Thomson are both claimed to have said: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.” I write these posts mainly in the hope that a blog post is the second or third best way.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?