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How Max Weber explains the 2016 election

Asked what qualities she possesses that will make her a good president that aren’t evident on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton tells Ezra Klein that "a lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards."

The line is an allusion to the conclusion of Max Weber’s celebrated century-old essay Politics as a Vocation (the standard translation says "politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards," which amounts to the same thing), a brilliant comparison of 19th-century political history in the US, UK, and Germany that also serves very much as an apologia for many of the aspects of Clinton’s persona that make her unlovable.

Weber writes of the seasoned professional party operative: "He is completely unprincipled in attitude and asks merely: What will capture votes?" And he means it in a good way!

More broadly, Weber’s essay offers a systematic defense of a Clintonian approach to politics, one that's more transactional than inspirational, in contrast to the alternatives offered by Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and even Barack Obama.

Professionals versus parvenues

What Weber says we should truly fear is not the self-interested professional but the would-be leader consumed by "a quite vulgar vanity," which is "the deadly enemy of all matter-of-fact devotion to a cause, and of all distance, in this case of distance toward one’s self."

Vanity, argues Weber, is a forgivable sin in most lines of work but a deadly one in politics, because politics necessarily entails a quest for power. Hence a political system risks turning up a type of character that certainly sounds reminiscent of Donald Trump:

Vanity, the need personally to stand in the foreground as clearly as possible, strongly tempts the politician to commit one or both of these sins. This is more truly the case as the demagogue is compelled to count upon "effect." He therefore is constantly in danger of becoming an actor as well as taking lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions and of being concerned merely with the "impression" he makes. His lack of objectivity tempts him to strive for the glamorous semblance of power rather than for actual power. His irresponsibility, however, suggests that he enjoy power merely for power's sake without a substantive purpose. Although, or rather just because, power is the unavoidable means, and striving for power is one of the driving forces of all politics, there is no more harmful distortion of political force than the parvenu-like braggart with power, and the vain self-reflection in the feeling of power, and in general every worship of power per se.

To Weber, in a series of riffs that would likely delight Clinton, it is not necessary or even particularly desirable that politicians be honest or transparent at all times, or even to abjure profiting personally from political office. What is vital is that they be serious about what they are doing. The Trumpian parvenue is abhorrent because he seeks power recklessly, saying and doing things merely to attract attention and power without regard for consequence.

The ethic of responsibility

The same essay also offers an implicit response to many of the criticisms leveled against Clinton by Bernie Sanders over the course of the campaign. Politics, says Weber, requires a particular mode of ethical conduct suited to its unique demands — what he calls an ethic of responsibility.

The ethic of responsibility is first and foremost focused on the practical impact of the political leader’s stances.

He contrasts this with an ethic of ultimate ends that focuses more on the righteousness of the positions taken. Weber writes that you could show a left-winger who adheres to an ethic of ultimate ends "that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent — and you will not make the slightest impression upon him."

By contrast, says Weber, "a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people."

Weber clearly did not have this specific example in mind, but the ethic of responsibility is the sort of ethic that might lead a person to embrace the Defense of Marriage Act in order to keep a broadly pro-LGBTQ political regime in office and then flip-flop on the issue only once public opinion had evolved.

But it can work in the other ideological direction as well. The ethic of responsibility could lead a former secretary of state to somewhat implausibly disavow a Trans-Pacific Partnership she was involved in negotiating, if that’s the best way to keep anti-globalization backlash from getting entirely out of control.

Steadfastness of heart

Perhaps most surprisingly, the very end of Weber’s essay — the part Clinton quoted directly — can be read as in some respects a mild rebuke of Barack Obama.

Weber analogizes politics to the process of drilling a hole through a very hard piece of wood. It’s incredibly annoying, and it’s critical not to become discouraged. He writes that "man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible" but that typically what happens when you reach out for the impossible is you simply fail.

To succeed, one must arm oneself "with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes."

Clinton tells Klein that times of great peril and opportunity arise in politics and "you have to seize those moments, and I think President Obama did that" at the beginning of his administration. But she gently suggests that after the initial rush wore off, Obama may have become excessively daunted by the partisan onslaught:

But I think you’ve got to try to push forward as many different issues as you can all at the same time, because you never know what’s going to turn the tide. So I just think it’s that getting up every day and working on it. It is not flashy, and you don’t telegraph everything you’re doing because that would be breaching the relationship and the negotiation you may be involved in.

I certainly saw my husband do that, and he did it with people who were trying to destroy him every single day. He’d meet with him at night; they’d hammer out deals; they would negotiate over very difficult things; they’d shut the government down; he’d veto them; they’d come back.

You just keep going.

This is considerably less appealing — but perhaps more realistic — than a standard political promise to "bring people together" and transcend polarization. Clinton offers not a post-partisan reverie but the dawning of a new era of hypocrisy that will recall the days when congressional Republicans could denounce the president as a criminal worthy of impeachment by day and hammer out a children’s health insurance expansion with him by night.

Weber writes that "only he" — or, perhaps, she — "who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics."

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