Politics and the Wheel of Fortune

Pat Sajak is somewhat better known than Boethius (and Vanna White surely is), but this being Holy Week for Christians, let us take a moment to consider the philosopher who defined the wheel of fortune long before the game show. A sixth-century Roman Christian with a tragic sensibility about the intrinsic limitations of the world, Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned, and he framed his work as a conversation between himself and the personification of "Philosophy," who at a critical juncture speaks in the voice of Fortune: "Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top." Comforting words, but as I have grown older I have become more skeptical of them: they feel more like an excuse than an explanation.

Yes, we are all subject to chance, and at times we fail to bend the world to our purposes. But we are also creatures of free will, and sometimes we make our own luck. Or, to put it in Boethian terms, we can sometimes slow the wheel or speed it up. Not always, but occasionally—and occasionally is about the best we can hope for in any case.

In politics, it is tempting to apply the Boethian framework to Washington and argue that what is up must come down, and what is down must come up, thus minimizing the role of free will in the workings of statecraft. While it is true that campaigning and governing are subject to chance, it is also true that human agency can play a role in trying to make the best of an inherently inconstant reality in public life.

I found myself thinking about Boethius and his wheel in light of President Obama's victory in the health-care wars and the Republicans' implacable opposition to the administration on this and everything else. I could see how, if I were a Republican pol, I could rationalize the health-care defeat as a bad spin of the wheel, and reassure myself that Obama's luck is unlikely to hold all year. But hoping for the defeat of an opponent is not a governing strategy. Just saying no or crying "Repeal!" is not what brought Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush to power. It is going to take more than negativity or the natural inconstancy of politics for the Republicans of 2010 and 2012 to win the kind of victories they say they want to win: ones that substantively help Americans and strengthen America. The Democratic Party certainly does not have all the answers, but at least it is asking the right questions. The GOP seems slightly retrograde, denouncing the president without offering a plausibly coherent alternative vision. Given the economic realities of 2009–10, does anyone really think that the deficit would be substantially different today if John McCain and Sarah Palin had defeated Barack Obama and Joe Biden?

Agree or disagree with the president, he and the Democrats in Congress took the risk of fortune and triumphed after a year or more of world-weary commentary from observers that the effort to protect the sick and offer Americans a measure of security in an insecure world was—take your pick—a distraction, a waste of political capital, a socialist plot, or all of the above. I am guilty of criticizing the president for failing to explain the nature of the legislation clearly and to offer the country a compelling vision of what he wants his "more perfect Union" to look like. I still think those points are valid, but a win is a win is a win.

The Republicans apparently believe that holding the line will change their luck, that McCain's vow of no cooperation for 2010 will somehow nudge the wheel in their favor. A risky plan, that, given that Obama has now proved he knows how to play the game.