Machine Politicians

Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of Germany, said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Similarly, he said, “Politics is not a science, as professors think. It is an art.”

Over the centuries, adherents of one political hero or another have ruefully discovered the truth of Bismark’s observation.

Politics requires compromise. Only idealists talk seriously about “what must be done.” Politicians realistically think in terms of “what can be done.”

It gets worse. British historian Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The word “tends” often gets dropped from the quotation. Indeed, for some, it was more than a tendency. “The incorruptible” Maximilien Robespierre, revered leader of the French Revolution, later launched the Reign of Terror. Other political idols of idealists merely faded away along with their ideals after losing their elections.

The promises of politicians are not so much platforms as platitudes. Politicking is the art of the plausible.

Bernard Baruch, financier and economic advisor to two presidents, knew the bottom line. His advice?

“Vote for the man who promises least; he’ll be the least disappointing.”

All this is not to say that everyone who runs for election is, by definition, dishonest. Some cynics believe that. That most caustic of journalists, Ambrose Bierce, defined a cynic as someone “whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

But it’s not absolutely true. What is absolutely true, however, is that political language is inherently deceitful. Absolutely.

Few offer a more astute analysis of the corruption — and corrupting influence — of political language than George Orwell.

At its most benign, political language is lifeless and filled with opacity and vague phrases instead of clarity and concrete illustrations.

At its most destructive, political writing is “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

Orwell quoted a selection of typical political texts then described what they all have in common:

“The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. … Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

This last image — the prefabricated henhouse — was nearly prophetic. The MIT Technology Review reported in January, “Valentin Kassarnig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst … has created an artificial intelligence machine that has learned how to write political speeches that are remarkably similar to real speeches.”

To do this, “Kassarnig used a database of almost 4,000 political speech segments from 53 U.S. Congressional floor debates to train a machine-learning algorithm to produce speeches of its own.”

To get an idea just how sophisticated the technology is, “Kassarnig also categorized the speeches by political party, whether Democrat or Republican, and by whether it was in favor or against a given topic.”

He analyzed the text with a breakdown of parts-of-speech and grammar. Then, like an inside-out Google search, he developed algorithms that predicted which word would follow which.

The end result? Kassarnig was able to press the button and have his speech machine churn out oratory that is almost indistinguishable from the standard palaver of many politicians.

Will Kassarnig’s speech machine replace politicians at the polls? Would we notice the difference? No, and yes. You still have to get out there and vote. If for no reason than elected officials (and machine bosses) know which neighborhoods voted. And for whom.

But the truth — the absolute truth — is what Dovid Hamelech told us in Tehillim: “Do not trust in princes, in a human being, who has no salvation.”

We must vote and we must treat elected officials with respect. But we must know Who has the real power.

The Midrash says, “If you see countries battling each other, expect the footsteps of Moshiach.”

The Alter Vorker Rebbe explains, “Don’t you interest yourself in their conflicts. They don’t involve you. You just pray for Moshiach.”