However, if, as former German chancellor Otto von Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible, then kicking the proverbial can may often be a necessary part of that art. Living to fight another, hopefully better, day has always been vital in politics. The reflex of not inflicting avoidable harm on others, a natural can kicker’s reflex, is a worthy one too. And while holding a shared institutional and cultural network like the EU or the US Congress together is not always worthwhile at any cost, it is generally better than the alternatives — a difficult judgment that great leaders have sometimes been forced to make.
That is especially true in modern democratic politics in the post-industrial developed world.
Leaders today kick the can down the road not because they are personally feeble and useless, but because our societies have, in effect, chosen to deny them the authority to boss us around except in exceptional circumstances. Modern political leaders are not all-powerful, thank goodness. They are routinely constrained from taking decisive action by checks and balances that include laws, treaties, elections, coalitions, opinion polls and, not least, markets.
Modern leaders operate under formal and informal rules with which, broadly speaking, modern electorates feel comfortable most of the time. Sometimes the electorates are wrong and sometimes right. The Iraq war, 10 years ago this spring, is an example of the latter. Much of public opinion preferred then-US president George W. Bush and then-British prime minister Tony Blair to kick the Iraqi can down the road. Bush and Blair refused and set themselves against the public. Once the war had failed, the public punished them. Today’s politicians have learned the lesson.
The media encourage can-kicking too, often unintentionally, especially in Britain. By treating political leaders as figures of derision and even abuse, rather than men and women who may sometimes be worthy of respect, the media help to ensure that political leaders are weakened and cautious. Faced with a can in a road, they therefore kick it.
Opinion-formers make a particular contribution here. By fostering the impression that the courses open to political leaders are much clearer, simpler, more moral and more radical than in fact they are almost all of the time, commentators of all persuasions can set governments up to fail. In that sense, the media are integral parts of creating the culture of can-kicking of which, in other modes, they so grandly disapprove.