Reflections on Political Science and Political Journalism

by Prof. Paul Eidelberg

There are two basic types of political science, normative or prescriptive, and normless or descriptive. Aristotle’s political science is both normative and descriptive. His paramount concern, what is the best regime, is inseparable from his Nicomachean Ethics, an in-depth analysis of the moral virtues or of how should man live.

Aristotle studied about 150 regimes and classified them according to whether they were ruled by the one, the few, or the many. He divided them into two groups: kingship, aristocracy, and republic on the one hand, and their opposites, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy on the other. The good regimes were those whose rulers ruled in the interest of the ruled. The bad were those in which the rulers ruled in their own interests.

Aristotle regarded kingship the best regime in theory—not a utopia, but what reasonable men would reasonably wish for. Since the citizens of such a regime would have to be of fairly good moral and intellectual character, it’s very rare, but it provides a standard by which to reform and improve an existing regime. But as sober political scientist, Aristotle devotes much space his Politics to the best regime in practice, a more attainable which he called a “polity,” for which term I have substituted “republic.”

A polity or republic is middle class regime. It combines democracy and oligarchy. This it does in many different ways, for example, (1) by prescribing diverse modes of electing the members of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; (2) by varying the size or membership of these branches; and (3) by assigning to their members different terms of office. No political scientist equals Aristotle in comprehensiveness. What Machiavelli knows of political science can be put on a postage stamp compared to Aristotelian political science, if only because of its comprehensive ethics, to which one should add Aristotle’s Rhetoric—the first treatise of its kind.

Although Machiavelli, contrary to what has been said of him, is not a moral relativist, he prepared the ground for a morally neutral or “value-free” political science; indeed, he turned political science on its head. As Leo Strauss saw, the great Florentine was the first political scientist to regard democracy—more precisely, a commercial democracy—as the best regime. To avoid his bad reputation, most contemporary political scientists prefer to be known as “political realists.” They are the milk-and-toast Machiavellians who become the advisers of democracy’s foreign policy elites—the Brzezinskis in America, the Harkabis in Israel—yes, moral relativists. The former “cozied” up with the USSR, the latter with the PLO. They pursued a “morally free” or “ideologically neutral” foreign policy

For Aristotle and for classical political science in general, there is no such thing as a morally neutral political science. The reason is this. Politics involves the controversial; it’s concerned with preservation and change: how to make things better, and how to prevent things from becoming worse. This can’t be morally neutral. A morally neutral political science would be trivial; and if purveyed as “descriptive,” it would be misleading, because what the political scientist chooses to describe or talk about is based on (unstated) “criteria of importance.” Criteria of importance can’t be morally neutral without being utterly trivial: like correlating how a politician votes and whether his left or right foot is the first to enter the assembly.

The basic considerations set forth above enable us to judge the character of political journalism. Political journalism can’t be morally neutral without being trivial or irrelevant to the question of what is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. This kind of journalism is often displayed by the BBC and the Guardian, which propagate the adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”—a vulgar display of moral relativism or moral equivalence. This is the prevailing doctrine of the American State Department and the long-standing U.S. policy of “even-handed diplomacy” vis-à-vis Israel and the PLO. It is sanctified by The New York Times, frequently by The Washington Post, and other so-called liberal newspapers that side with illiberal terrorist organizations committed to Israel’s destruction. “Moral reversal” may better describe the mentality of the mandarins of these sheltered media.

Their value-free journalists remind us of the cop Joe Friday: “just the facts ma’am.” This value-free or worth-less political journalism avoids the most interesting and profound questions of classical political science, which we associated with Aristotle. No wonder. Such questions are beyond the scope or intellectual competence of most political journalists. Besides, and with all due respect, political journalism must be superficial if the journalist is not to go too far above the intellect of most readers of the daily newspaper. Nor is this all.

Just as the typical reader may not be equal to the intellectual level of political science, so the political scientist may not be equal to the intellectual level of those who fashioned the basic principles of his discipline. Few political scientists have really plumbed the depths of Machiavelli, or would even designate him, as did the renowned Leo Strauss, “the philosopher of evil.” And even here Strauss preferred reticence; for Machiavelli, the godfather of countless semi-educated politicians in the West, prepared the ground, as mentioned, for the university-bred doctrine of moral relativism which is rendering the West incapable of confronting the moral absolutism of Islam.

Prof. Paul Eidelberg is President of The Israel-America Renaissance Institute and retired professor of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University.

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