WordsDay: the art of the possible

In case you’ve been off-planet, the dumpster fire that is Election Season 2008 is in full swing. While this can be entertaining if you’re cynical enough, it’s a process that can exert a warping effect on the perspectives of even the best among us.

In times like these, it’s often helpful to turn to the wisdom of the ages. Today, then, we offer a collection of insights on politics from some of history’s more astute observers of public life.


All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field. › Albert Einstein

Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right. › H.L. Mencken, 1956

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. › James Madison

When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it. › Clarence Darrow

In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. › George Orwell

There are always too many Democratic congressmen, too many Republican congressmen, and never enough U.S. congressmen. › Author Unknown

In politics, an organized minority is a political majority. › Jesse Jackson

The peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: “Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.” › Carl Schurz

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet. › Mark Twain

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. › Plato

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it. › P.J. O’Rourke

When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow. › Anais Nin

I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. › Charles de Gaulle

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. › Hermann Goering

Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don’t know what they are conserving. › Robertson Davies

What is conservatism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried? › Abraham Lincoln

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. › John Kenneth Galbraith

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. › John Adams

Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right? › Robert Orben

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. › John F. Kennedy

Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks. › Doug Larson

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear. › Harry S Truman

Ideas are great arrows, but there has to be a bow. And politics is the bow of idealism. › Bill Moyers

The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. › Edward Dowling

Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative. › John Kenneth Galbraith

We have, I fear, confused power with greatness. › Stewart Udall

We live in a world in which politics has replaced philosophy. › Martin L. Gross, A Call for Revolution, 1993

It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians. › Henrik Ibsen

No public interest is anything other or nobler than a massed accumulation of private interests. › Mark Twain

A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead. › Leo Rosten

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward. › Franklin D. Roosevelt

George Washington is the only president who didn’t blame the previous administration for his troubles. › Author Unknown

A liberal is a man or a woman or a child who looks forward to a better day, a more tranquil night, and a bright, infinite future. › Leonard Bernstein

An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry. › T.S. Eliot

A conservative is a man who believes that nothing should be done for the first time. › Alfred E. Wiggam

Don’t vote, it only encourages them. › Author Unknown

I think it’s about time we voted for senators with breasts. After all, we’ve been voting for boobs long enough. › Clarie Sargent, Arizona senatorial candidate

Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. › Author Unknown

We’d all like to vote for the best man, but he’s never a candidate. › Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle. › Alexis de Tocqueville

Why pay money to have your family tree traced; go into politics and your opponents will do it for you. › Author Unknown

I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling lies about us, I will stop telling the truth about them. › Adlai Stevenson

Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others. › Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against. › W.C. Fields

Truth is not determined by majority vote. › Doug Gwyn

Politics are not the task of a Christian. › Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. › John F. Kennedy

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. › John Kenneth Galbraith

Voting is one of the few things where boycotting in protest clearly makes the problem worse rather than better. › Jane Auer

There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust. › Demosthenes

Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel. › John Quinton

Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them. › Lily Tomlin

A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in. › H. L. Mencken

A good politician under democracy is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. › H. L. Mencken

Take our politicians: they’re a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés the first prize. › Saul Bellow

Although he’s regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics. › George J. Mitchell

I’ve always said that in politics, your enemies can’t hurt you, but your friends will kill you. › Ann Richards

The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery. They’re the kind of people who’d stop to help you change a flat, but would somehow manage to set your car on fire. I would be reluctant to entrust them with a Cuisinart, let alone the economy. The Republicans, on the other hand, would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn’t bother to stop because they’d want to be on time for Ugly Pants Night at the country club. › Dave Barry

Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong. › Richard Armour

A politician should have three hats. One for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected. › Carl Sandburg

In politics, strangely enough, the best way to play your cards is to lay them face upwards on the table. › H. G. Wells

The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal – that you can gather votes like box tops – is… the ultimate indignity to the democratic process. › Adlai Stevenson

Too bad that all the people who really know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair. › George Burns

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. › Groucho Marx

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river. › Nikita Khrushchev

Conservatism is the policy of make no change and consult your grandmother when in doubt. › Woodrow Wilson

One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. The P.S.U.C. militiamen whom I knew in the line, the Communists from the International Brigade whom I met from time to time, never called me a Trotskyist or a traitor; they left that kind of thing to the journalists in the rear. The people who wrote pamphlets against us and vilified us in the newspapers all remained safe at home, or at worst in the newspaper offices of Valencia, hundreds of miles from the bullets and the mud. And apart from the libels of the inter-party feud, all the usual war-stuff, the tub-thumping, the heroics, the vilification of the enemy-all these were done, as usual, by people who were not fighting and who in many cases would have run a hundred miles sooner than fight. […] Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him. › George Orwell

Among politicians the esteem of religion is profitable; the principles of it are troublesome. › Benjamin Whichcote

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy. › Ernest Benn

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. › Oscar Ameringer

The reason there are so few female politicians is that it is too much trouble to put makeup on two faces. › Maureen Murphy

The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning. › Adlai E. Stevenson

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. › George Orwell

There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose. › John Kenneth Galbraith

In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant. › Charles de Gaulle

Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. › William E. Gladstone, 1866

At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols. › Aldous Huxley

Anyone that wants the presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. › David Broder

Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so. › Gore Vidal

I am working for the time when unqualified blacks, browns, and women join the unqualified men in running our government. › Cissy Farenthold

Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country – and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians. › Charles Krauthammer


  • Now I’m even more depressed about politics …

  • Good stuff, Dr. S. But i think that your characterization (dumpster fire) is the best of them all.

  • where to begin!! so many, so good. Scary thing when you realize that looong time ago, people made the same observations about politics as people do currently. Imagine; observations from a time of no democracy (really) to now when there ..is??
    goerring’s observation is very familiar..are you surprised when Europeans shake their heads at Americans when the republicans pull the same rabbit of the head?? Been there done that..patriotism..what a bunch a crock!


  • Yup, really good stuff, but I’ve got to give it up to Plato and Bill Moyers for addressing our current situation. in the same vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it completely wrong.

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