By DAVID BROOKS
New York Times News Service
Let’s say you are a young person beginning to write about politics and policy. You probably have some idea of what you believe, but have you thought about how you believe it? That is to say, have you thought about where you will sit on the continuum that stretches from writers who are engaged to those who are detached?
Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties. To have the most influence, the engaged writer wants to channel his efforts through a party.
The engaged writer closely and intimately aligns with a team. In his writing, he provides arguments for the party faithful and builds community by reminding everyone of the errors and villainy of the opposing side. For the engaged writer, the writing is often not about persuasion. (Realistically, how many times does a piece of writing persuade someone to switch sides?) It’s often about mobilization. It’s about energizing the people who already agree with you.
The engaged writer often criticizes his own party, but from a zone of trust inside it, and he is usually advising the party to return to its core creed. The engaged writer is willing to be repetitive because that’s how you make yourself an unavoidable pole in the debate. The goal is to have immediate political influence, to provide party leaders with advice, strategy and policy recommendations.
The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.
But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.
The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.
There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.
These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.
But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high. Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think — to provide an idea or piece information that sets readers on a train of thought that takes them far in front of whatever you put down.
The detached writer understands that, at the top level, politics is a bipolar struggle for turf. But the real fun is down below, sparking conversations about underlying concepts, underlying reality and the underlying frame of debate.