Political Realism vs Apoliticism

The concepts of political realism and apoliticism are often conflated, but merit owed to the former is often incorrectly assigned to the latter.

Generally, political realists maintain a practical attitude toward the politicians, governments, institutions and other political factors that create laws, and regulate societies and economies. Instead of keeping a faith in people in positions of social or political power as vanguards of political ideology, or as the humble servants of the public with higher ideals representing the concerns of the masses in democratic institutions, political realists understand them in a different, more realistic way: that they ultimately act and react based on a merger of personal wants/needs and various incentives they face. Indeed, thinking on the behavior of individual politicians or political operatives — the way they present themselves, interact with their electorate, vote on certain issues, etc. — with proper consideration for factors like the pressures of election cycles that determine their career path, the most powerful interests that have their ear and they can benefit from, and so on, produces a more accurate picture of the world of public policy and the factors at play in it.

So, for example, a political realist would look at events like the United States invasion of Iraq without simply swallowing the starry-eyed, rhetoric-driven tales of a benevolent country being reluctantly pulled into a duty of world policing, resistance to terror, and spreading constitutional democracy to other regimes when no one else would step up. Instead they might see a convergence of multiple factors, different layers of interests, and various incentives that meant the U.S. state would decide to use aggression against another country and occupy it. In other words, perhaps concern for getting another country’s parliament to function in conjunction with the ideals of democracy was not in play. But using the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to look at “things related and not” to the actual event, and “sweep it all up” in the Middle-East to get rid of a dictator who had outlived his previous usefulness to American interests in the region, was.

A political realist might abandon investing time and energy into what we call the day-to-day business of electoral politics, political offices, and parties at the local, provincial or state, and federal level. For instance, since a single vote usually has a near-zero chance of ever being a deciding factor in an election, one might stop voting if they’re not organizing with others. Or, one might become disenchanted with low-level volunteering for a political party, feeling that they are having little to no impact on party outcomes, or any influence on forming policy. And, one might even quit filling their mind with specific pieces of political minutiae, like the names of everyone in the President’s cabinet.

However, none of this necessitates a complete resistance or withdrawal from awareness and interest in the political sphere and public affairs more generally. The most hardcore political realists and those most disenchanted with the current systems of power and politics may disengage from token forms of participation, but also feel committed to educating themselves and others on social injustices, class issues, and other factors that affect the lives of individuals and other groups. Put another way, political realists might often find themselves justifiably participating in education, organization, and activism that seeks to raise awareness and/or put external pressure on institutions or systems, and there is no inherent contradiction in that. They have stopped spending time or energy on ineffective ways of affecting political change, and have turned their efforts to what they believe are effective ways.

Apoliticism should be understood differently. It’s more accurate to think of it as a form of apathy and cynicism that is only sometimes informed by political realism. An apolitical person tends to display a state of zero concern and intentional avoidance for thinking or opinion on any political or public element of life, necessarily making this stance or state a complete focus on the narrowest elements of private life. This position or state of being can be justified as “rational” for many, and is not always a blameworthy one. For instance, someone with very low income just trying to make ends meet for the week might not have the time to pay a minute to a thought on class struggle (though, ironically, they often do, and do so with more natural passion and accuracy than someone with a college degree allegedly studying the same thing).

However, for anyone not struggling materially or otherwise, apoliticism is ultimately a position of peak privilege and is perpetuated by a grotesquely flippant, underlying attitude that, intentionally or not, supports some of the worst effects of the political power state. Indeed, having no thought for how the current order or institutions may be affecting others, for better or worse, and how one might influence change for the better might be excusable, if the person in this care-free state truly does not participate in the current order. But that’s likely not the case since the current set of socioeconomic systems and institutions we live with simply cannot help but be intertwined to some degree with the public sphere or political power by their very nature.

With this in view, it’s not a stretch to say we are all ultimately either participating in the perpetuation and maintenance of the unjust aspects of the current order, or are working to actively critique and attack it. Though apoliticism seems to offer it, there truly is no neutral position one can maintain on today’s public and political circumstances. Consider how choosing to watch someone get beat up during a robbery and staying uninvolved when doing something would have at the very most completely stopped it, or at the very least called attention to the injustice, is not a neutral position by any means. In fact, that thought experiment shows how doing “nothing” can actually be looked upon as a choice that (intentionally or not) at worst ratifies or endorses the situation, and at best at least signals that it is not worth any response.

Now, one of the stronger objections to an attack on this kind of apoliticism and the points made above is that those who remain unconcerned or stay out of any public issue or set of affairs are in fact minimizing or eliminating what would inevitably be a negative or unhelpful contribution to the tricky business of public affairs — think about how many otherwise intelligent people say they don’t understand public affairs. However, there seems to be something grossly disingenuous and lazy about this way of thinking. To take up a stance that essentially says you’re best off not getting your hands dirty or involved where one can potentially affect positive change but perhaps risks doing the opposite is often more than anything an affirmation of one’s own current failings, understandings, and capabilities. Furthermore, it is an implicit claim that the current order at worst brings minor inconveniences to your own life not worthy of further attention. Perhaps that’s true, however the same order that brings only minor inconveniences to one person can maximally affect and damage the lives of others in an unjust way. This is the reality that does not disappear when you stop caring about it. In fact, in many ways it depends on the assumption that there’s no noticeable cost to doing nothing.

The world’s injustices don’t stop when we turn a blind eye. A basic way to start looking at your own choices on how you concern yourself with political affairs is to recognize that you’re responsible for the more likely outcomes of your actions or inactions. And, more often than not, one of the likely outcomes of making even a minor investment of time into raising your own awareness of the public sphere is the realization of the small ways you can contribute to the education and organization of others against injustice, and discovering how even the smallest efforts and changes can make huge differences in the lives of others. The choice to be apolitical or not, if you have the luxury of the option, is a character-defining one, and it is appropriate to evaluate, encourage, and critique yourself — and others — with that in mind.

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