August 8, 2006


LIFE OF THE PARTY: Benjamin Disraeli and the politics of performance. (ADAM GOPNIK, 2006-07-03, The New Yorker)

By far the most searching study of Disraeli’s politics can be found in Trollope’s political novel “Phineas Redux,” written in 1870-71, and taking the contest over the franchise as one of its themes. Trollope’s Disraeli character, called Daubeny (a disapproving hint of playacting, daubing and painting, is lodged in the name), having already betrayed his followers over the franchise, now tries to keep the Conservatives in power, still in tacit alliance with the Radicals, by undertaking the other great taboo act, the disestablishment of the Church of England. His natural supporters are scandalized but impotent, Trollope sees, having so long ago handed over their independent judgment to his superior cunning. And, of course, his Liberal opponent, here called Gresham, is driven to near-hysterical indignation.

Trollope’s Daubeny is certainly not a man of principle, but the novelist sees him as something more than an opportunist, and certainly not as a cynic. For him, it is the task of those who govern to recognize when the political ground has already shifted beneath their feet, and to ease the passing of the actual into the legal. As Disraeli declared after the Reform Bill was enacted, “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.” The line between Oakeshottian improvisation and outright opportunism is a fine and high one, but Disraeli walked it, and kept his balance.

At the same time, Disraeli, as Trollope understood, saw that being in power means that all the practical prerogatives of power—things as large as the appointment of bishops, the Supreme Court Justices of the day, and as small as the awarding of “places” and honors—remain in the hands of one group rather than another. Dizzy had a kind of romantic-aesthetic spirituality, but he saw organized religion as a useful civic support, with spoils to be divided fairly among the various sects. After being taken to hear a sermon preached at Westminster Abbey, he remarked, “I would not have missed the sight for anything—the darkness, the lights, the marvelous windows.” This is not a secondary but a primary part of governing, since it sustains the social networks that make politics possible. Politics, for Disraeli, was as much about preferment as about policy—or, rather, he thought that principle is exercised as well through preferment as through policy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 8, 2006 10:12 PM
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