The Good Fight
Rory Stewart on How Not to Be a Politician

Rory Stewart on How Not to Be a Politician

Yascha Mounk and Rory Stewart discuss the pitfalls of political life and how to drive change.
(David Levenson/Getty Images)

Rory Stewart is an author, a diplomat and a politician. A former Secretary of State for International Development in the United Kingdom, Stewart is now the president of the global poverty-alleviation charity GiveDirectly. He is also the author of The Places In Between and, most recently, How Not To Be a Politician: A Memoir.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Rory Stewart discuss the difference between the skills required to win political office and those required to govern well; whether the old conservative tradition, discarded lately in America and the UK, has something left to offer; and why, despite limited progress, we must remain vigilant in the fight against global poverty.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You have a new book out soon, which is How Not To Be a Politician

You've had some adventures and misadventures in British politics for the last decade. What did you learn from that about how not to be a politician, and perhaps, even, how to be a politician?

Rory Stewart: I think the most fundamental thing I learned is how absolutely brutal politics is; that the way in which politics is done—the way in which you’re selected, the incentives of campaigning—makes it very damaging to your mind, your body and your soul. And the public suffers. It contorts and creates these very strange personalities. And most importantly of all, it unfits you for governing. The skills that you need to get elected contradict many of the fundamental skills that you would need to be able to administer or govern a country well.

Mounk: Why is it that the incentives of the system are rewarding the worst kind of behavior and bringing out the worst in people and, when I look at the history of the United Kingdom for the last ten years, not rewarding the people whom I think we would agree would be better in public service?

Stewart: Well, I think it's partly that you're not selecting for somebody's ability to govern a country. You're not trying to find people who are strong at critical thinking, or who are skilled managers, or who have particularly impressive ideas. It's not a selection process like you would select a CEO or a university professor. You're basically selecting through a party system, so that the first thing that matters is what kind of people impress the party. And the people that impress the party in the UK system tend to be people who have been engaged with party politics from a very, very young age, who have demonstrated their loyalty out on the street by campaigning, delivering leaflets, or have worked as a special advisor or assistant to a minister or a Member of Parliament. 

When you enter politics, there are strong pressures to demonstrate loyalty to the party and the leader, and equally strong pressures to establish your name in the media and through social media, often through making very provocative comments, creating a very binary black and white vision of the world. The combination of party media and campaigning means that the system selects for somebody who is going to very naturally produce very binary options in very clear colors, who doesn't admit any form of complexity, doubt, or humility; who's perpetually confident in their vision of the world. Perhaps this is the sort of mask which they put on in order to get elected. But the problem is, the mask is painted with a poison. And when they take off the mask, the poison is still corroding their face. So when they sit around the cabinet table, they have to demonstrate critical thinking, and critical thinking is the opposite of all those things. Suddenly, they have to think about complexity, they have to be humble, they have to be open to other people's ideas, they have to be able to change their minds. They have to be interested in nuance and detail. None of those things are the things which enable a Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to flourish in the first place.

I think it is particularly corrosive on the right. Although there is a lot of left wing populism going on. Particularly in Latin America, there have been some very eccentric individuals elected, but they seem to be doing less damage than one would expect. They talk a big game about remodeling the constitution or abolishing the army, and actually they get into power and they seem not to do very much. So it's the right-wing populists that are the problem. And I think one fundamental challenge for the right is that the right was traditionally conservative. It was traditionally about showing respect for history, tradition, and constitutions. And, for a number of complicated reasons, a defense of the status quo, an evolutionary attitude towards politics, a deference towards the past and the constitution doesn't feel like a particularly viable, active, popular option; which means that the right has abandoned a lot of what used to anchor it and has instead embraced a more revolutionary mindset and particularly posing itself as standing for the people against the elite. They found a very, very rich vein in trying to present themselves in nationalist and anti-immigrant terms. Now, when I was a Conservative MP, those trends were there within the Conservative Party, but they were the minority fringe, even as recently as 2012. David Cameron, who was basically a sort of centrist conservative, referred to people who supported Brexit as closet fruitcakes, racists and nutters. He was very much dismissive of this trend. But certainly, in the United Kingdom, that's taken over. And what we found with Trump and with Johnson is conservatives’ incredible delight in challenging and wrecking institutions and portraying them as being vehicles for the elite. They sound almost like Marxists.

Mounk: There's something astonishing about that. In a sense, the British Conservatives have often had an ability to refashion the country in surprising ways. I mean, I don't want to compare Margaret Thatcher to somebody like Boris Johnson. I think that there were both better grounds for some of the impatience she had with the state of a country when she came to power and more coherence (despite some disagreements I have with the direction she wanted to take it in). It was not, in essence, a conservative program, either, certainly relative to where the country was in 1979, and probably not relative to where it was at any point in history. Is there a strange strand on the right that is actually quite revolutionary in many junctures of history, or is there something kind of unique about this moment?

Stewart: The Conservatives in Britain wrapped into themselves two very different traditions. One of them was the old Tory tradition and the other is the sort of liberal Whig tradition. The old Tory tradition was conservative in the sense of wanting to conserve the past; it was deferential towards the monarchy, the military, and, in the 18th century, even tried to bring back the old Stuart royal family. The Whig liberal tradition was much more radical economically: it was about free markets; it was about global trade; it was much more suspicious of tradition and the past. There's a lovely phrase from W. B. Yeats (a great sort of traditional conservative) and he says, of the Tory conservative tradition in Ireland and Britain, Burke, Goldsmith, and Berkeley of Cloyne all hated the political positions of the Whigs, all hated Whiggery, which he calls that “leveling, rancorous, rational sort of mind that never looked out of the eye of a saint or out of a drunkard’s eye. All’s Whiggery now. But we old men are amassed against the world.”

The idea of that part of the Tory tradition, which is partly the tradition of Edmund Burke, was always rubbing up against a much more radical embrace of capitalism. And in a sense, capitalism is of course very, very revolutionary. What Margaret Thatcher did in her embrace of radically liberated free markets was to disrupt most of the ancient traditions and institutions. She was unsympathetic towards the Foreign Office, the civil service, the traditional regulations and structures of the City of London. And she unleashed this extreme upheaval. By giving council houses to working class people, she transformed the economic conditions of whole classes. She was not sympathetic towards trying to preserve an old Britain. I don't know whether it's true in the United States, but there’s also change, in class terms, in the composition of Conservative MPs. We focus on the fact that David Cameron and Boris Johnson went to Eton and much less on the fact that, increasingly, the backbench MPs are often from much more working class backgrounds than they would have been 30 or 40 years ago and have very little patience with a nostalgic vision of army, empire or any of the things that used to hold the Conservative Party together.

Mounk: In class terms, I wonder whether there's a comparison here, which is about the nearly unnoticed passing of the WASPs. I've played this game with a few people in the last few weeks, which is, “Name the most powerful WASP in the United States today.” And it's actually practically impossible. What remains is a few people who are, in the literal sense, white Anglo Saxon Protestants, but they are not part of the old WASP elite. And that, I think, perhaps has led to a similar departure of the forms of small-c conservatism and nostalgia that you described in the British case. 

While I think the conversation we've had so far is intellectually very interesting, we open ourselves up to a sort of a straightforward charge, which is that we seem to have nostalgia for this old class of aristocratic politicians in Britain and the old WASP club in the United States. But wasn't the world over which they presided both unjust and in many ways quite ineffectual? And isn't that precisely why people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump could come in and sweep that aside? Is there anything from that mostly conservative tradition that you think we should know we need to preserve? And then, more ambitiously speaking, what would a conservatism look like that builds on the positive parts of that tradition?

Stewart: You're absolutely right that there's no point in nostalgia. The patrician or WASP tradition is exploded. I also think that the sort of consensus of the 1990s, the kind of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair center ground politics, has been destroyed. And although I have some sympathy for that moment in history (in some ways, the ‘90s were quite a positive moment in global history), we can also see the flaws of that. And the flaws were, I think, cruelly exposed in five different ways. We have to deal with the fact that we've lost five fundamental faiths. We used to operate in a system where we believed that the best way to achieve economic growth was through a particular vision of free markets and global trade. We used to believe that economic growth and prosperity would necessarily lead to democracy. We used to believe that our forms of Western democracy were deeply legitimate and just. We used to forcefully believe that they would contribute to a liberal global order that we could describe and which would embody, internationally, all this stuff about democracy and markets. And finally, that all of this would exist in a consensus, that the votes were in the center ground, public opinion was a sort of bell jar, with very few votes at the extremes. 

The experience of the 2000s and the 2010s essentially smashed every one of those assumptions. The 2008 financial crisis obviously wrecked the theories about economics. The rise of China wrecked the links between economics and democracy. I think the humiliations of the Iraq and Afghan Wars destroyed the idea of the liberal global order. I think Black Lives Matter and increasing consciousness in Europe and the United States of the problems in our societies destroyed a naive confidence and the legitimacy of the previous system. And, finally, social media destroyed the consensus and turned that bell jar into a kind of U shape with the votes at the extremes and nothing left in the middle. Insofar as a conservatism for the 21st century is going to be viable, it needs to acknowledge those five catastrophic collapses and produce a vision of politics which is capable of not pretending it can reinvent the centrism of Blair and Clinton but instead offer something different.

Mounk: That was, I think, the best three minute summary of the political transformations of the last thirty years that I've heard. But you failed the essay question, which was what do you think is the substance, whether in public policy, values, or rhetoric of a conservative or moderate politics that is capable of responding to those transformations in a way that feels intellectually adequate and would actually speak to voters?

Stewart: Well, this may sound odd, but I think that the first thing is that it's a politics that needs to be rooted in an explicit sense of shame. The moderate politicians of the sort that I value need to begin by saying a lot is wrong. It cannot be a complacent politics. It needs to recognize the justifiable anger of people. It needs to acknowledge the many ways in which we're failing are own citizens, that our institutions are much shabbier, our prisons are filthy; that poverty in our countries is completely unacceptable; that many people feel in a very precarious state, that they they're clinging on and their lives are not fulfilling; that they did not get what they were promised. That's the first thing. You've got to acknowledge the failure. 

If I can fall back on Aristotle you need to combine your logos, your rational argument or your technocratic arguments about the right way to do things (I think that's where moderates do have an advantage—we ought to be better at policy, we ought to be better at evidence) with the pathos, the emotion and the ability to communicate emotion, and with the ethos, which is a sense of moral character, purpose, or direction. And I think the center ground has lost all those three things in different ways. It has been tempted off the technocratic ground because it feels under pressure. It seems to be impossible for Rishi Sunak, who in some ways is a more moderate politician than Boris Johnson or Liz Truss in Britain to defend reasonable environmental policies at the moment because he can see a small electoral advantage and a particular group that will allow him to win byelections by trashing policies to prevent polluting cars. The same is true with Joe Biden—there was a perfectly rational, moderate policy of keeping a light footprint in Afghanistan, which would have been available to him and which would have prevented the Taliban from taking over at minimal costs to the US. But he was unable to avoid the binary choice between surge or total withdrawal.

The second thing, I think, is that the passion was stripped out of politics in the ‘90s because it appeared as though all the answers were there. We had technocratic solutions to everything; a pragmatically regulated free market was going to give all the answers. And therefore, politics became a question of think tanks, looking at Swedish education policy and working out what lessons could be applied in the US or the UK. And so they abandoned words like loyalty, nation, sacrifice to the extremes of the left and the right and created a very sort of banal, gray politics. And the final thing is the ethos, the moral purpose: it's the fundamental strength and weakness of liberalism, which is to become so neutral and tolerant of positions, to be so allergic to talking about values and so utilitarianly focused simply on GDP per capita growth, that it lacked any sense of any higher purpose, any point to the whole thing apart from a slightly more skillful management of intractable problems. 

So to finish my long lecture, the conservative movement needs to find an energy in the center, which comes from harnessing the energy of the extremes—it can't avoid those extremes. It needs to take the sense of justice and equality from the left, and it needs to take the sense of freedom from the right. And it needs to find in the tension between those principles its own energy.

Mounk: I wonder if there is one aspect that I would add, and perhaps it's related to the transformation of elites that we were talking about earlier. You used to have a kind of patrician elite in Britain, and the WASPs in the United States, which were deeply misguided in all kinds of ways. But in a strange way, it had a sense of being lucky to be where they were. And hand in hand with that, I think it actually had a reasonable amount of respect and compassion for people who were less fortunate. And I do think that there's something about the more meritocratic, self-confident, progressive, modern elite that is deeply influential now in Britain and the United States that comes off as much more smug and judgmental. 

That is part of what's going on. I think Britain is a country that, in all kinds of ways, doesn't afford a terribly high standard of living to people at the median. But the median American is really actually leading a pretty good life, when you look at the income levels, and what the houses look like, what cars they drive, and so on. They are stressed around medical costs and the cost of sending kids to college in ways that I don't want to underestimate. But I think the shame in that context would need to be rooted less in not providing them with the goods, and more in, “We have to become so smug about ourselves that you rightly feel judged and looked down at by us.” And it seems to me that that is where a lot of energy comes from in a way that perhaps would need to be added to your account.

Stewart: I think that's right. Maybe if I was addressing comfortable, middle to upper-middle-class American voters with nice houses and cars, part of the sense of shame would be to say, “Look at American prisons.” Prisons are a very, very good test of our countries. The prisons are horrifying in the United States. They're disgusting. I was the Prisons Minister in Britain. And I was very struck at how isolated we are, because prisons in any country are a sort of island. They're not like hospitals and schools, where the entire population is interacting with them all the time. I was very struck, going into prisons, how little I understood about the horrifying conditions in which we were keeping our fellow citizens. 

I feel the same about global poverty. I’m so worried by the fact that, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were going to “Make Poverty History,” which was a huge movement, with the Millennium Development Goals of the UN and the sustainable development goals. And now, basically, I feel I'm interacting with a lot of people who just don't really care about the fact that the number of people living on less than $2.15 in Africa has gone from 170 million in 1980 to 470 million today; that there are 770 million people worldwide who cannot meet their most basic needs; that 50% of the global population is living on less than $6 a day—unimaginably stressful, terrible lives without the slightest form of savings, incomes, investment resilience. And yet, we don't seem to care about that either. That's partly about a lack of moral purpose. And it's also about the collapse of certain kinds of solidarity. On the right, that movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s was very driven by the World Council of Churches, which had a very, very strong international presence, and on the left by the trade union movement that had a very strong sense of international solidarity. Those institutions have collapsed. 

We're in a very, very odd world, where one of the challenges for politicians is moving people in terms of the daily obligations to our fellow citizens, not simply the grand debates around climate (which are very important, but taking place at a much greater level of abstraction) but the actual homeless person in San Francisco—I mean, there is literally no reason why San Francisco cannot sort out its problems. It's completely shocking, astonishing given the tax base of California, given the wealth of the companies located there, that something could be that badly administered, that American citizens can be living in those kinds of conditions. But I hear very little about that in the debate. 

Mounk: Since you mentioned global poverty, you're now the president of GiveDirectly. What is the state of global poverty? I was struck in your description of it, that it is somewhat more pessimistic than the accounts I often hear about, actually having been in tremendous economic progress over the last thirty or forty years, which has eradicated a lot of global poverty and lifted a lot of people up into the middle class. 

Why is it that the number of people who live in abject poverty has gone up in this kind of way? And what is it that we can do about that?

Stewart: Well, I think partly the problem is that this optimistic story was partly a story of the ‘90s and 2000s. It was part of the general optimism in every year during that period—the number of democracies in the world was increasing, the world was becoming more peaceful. But actually since 2014, and the rise of populism, we've had year on year of the world becoming more violent, more refugees, more internally displaced people, and fewer democracies. Now we've got a swathe of military coups across the Sahel, and the optimistic story that that people like Steven Pinker used to tell (they never acknowledged how much of that was an Asian story, primarily a story driven by China, which lifted 700 million people out of extreme poverty, and to some extent, by India and Bangladesh and Indonesia), but many, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi had 70.3% of its population living in extreme poverty 15 years ago, and it has about 70.1% of its population living in extreme poverty today, during which time the absolute population has grown. So the proportion remains constant and the absolute number is skyrocketing. 

It suits a particular lazy liberal consensus to think that extreme poverty is sort of solving itself, that the world will move in the right direction and we can all move on to worry about climate change and AI to the exclusion of worrying about extreme poverty. The truth is we never fixed that issue. In many ways, it’s getting worse. And our attention is distracted, our international aid budgets are collapsing, donors are giving less and less money. And, you know, it's frustrating for me, as you say. I run GiveDirectly and there have been two revolutions in the last ten years. One is that mobile money in Africa allows us to deliver money directly to people's phones without going through governments. And the second is an explosion in randomized controlled trials, academic research, which demonstrates that cash is more effective than almost any other development intervention. You would have thought with those two things, it would be very easy to get tens of billions of dollars going into direct cash support. But the truth is that so many governments and so many private philanthropists don't seem to want to engage with the issue of extreme poverty in Africa.

Mounk: What is the prospect for helping people who continue to live in serious poverty get out of it? Is it going to be through traditional development aid? Is it going to be through these direct cash transfers? Is it going to be through reforms of the economic system that might eventually allow some of these African nations to have a similar development trajectory to that enjoyed by those East Asian countries? 

What is the realistic path here to reduce poverty in the kind of transformative way that we've seen in other parts of the world?

Stewart: You need to distinguish very clearly between what the root causes of poverty are and what foreigners in particular can do to address them. You're absolutely right in your overall accounts of underlying problems: clearly, governance, corruption, the commitment of countries to development is incredibly important. The countries that are doing best (whatever we think of the nature of these regimes) like China, Ethiopia, and Rwanda had elites that were very, very strongly committed towards development and were very focused on it and arranged their countries around it. And in the absence of that, it's difficult to develop. But there's not a great deal that outsiders can do to help a country that isn't committed to that. You can send in advisors and consultants, but, fundamentally, what does it take to make the government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Central African Republic really make development their priority? That's not something within the capacity of the international community. 

The second thing that's very important, of course, is public infrastructure: dams, bridges, schools. That's easier to do. You can borrow money from the World Bank, you can borrow money from the Chinese, and you can build those things. Industrial strategy, trade policy, or this sort of thing could be quite helpful. But those things are very difficult—changing the global trading system so that Niger gets more of the income from its uranium, instead of being controlled by international mining groups, is something that we haven't managed to do for a hundred years. And I personally think it would be pretty frustrating believing that you're going to be able to change the fundamental inequities of global trade. So that leaves us with what you can practically do to improve the lives of the extreme poor today and allow them to benefit from growth and there, I think, almost nothing can beat cash. These randomized control trials are literally taking a treatment group and a control group, like a medical trial, where you're giving $550 to the treatment group, nothing for the control group, you're studying over three, six, nine and twelve years, and the results are absolutely staggering. We're finding in villages in Rwanda that, at $550, within about three months, the amount of electricity in the village goes from 40 to 80%. The number of roofs goes from 40 to 80%, the number of latrines hits 100%. There’s an explosion of kids in school, fantastic improvements in nutritional indicators (bone density, stunting), new businesses being created, all of this through this very strange magic thing called cash. Because cash is something for our century, it's respectful, it's not the global north coming and saying to somebody in a village, “This is what you need to do, I'm going to capacity-build you.” It's saying, “I trust you, I respect your dignity, here's the cash, you know your needs and priorities better than I do. And you can put the money to work much more efficiently than an NGO can.”

Mounk: You've worked, at this point, in many different arenas, including academia, politics, and now the charitable sector. How do you think about making an impact in the world? Which of those sort of variations of your career have you found to be the most fulfilling?

Stewart: In my case, the most fulfilling thing I did was to run a small nonprofit in Afghanistan fifteen years ago. I loved it. I set it up. We had about 300 people, we worked a couple of city blocks, we restored buildings, we brought water supply, sanitation, a clinic, a primary school. But basically, I just loved working with the community and I loved the speed with which we were able to do things, the instant impact of buildings going up and our ability to get in conversations about cultural heritage and education and health. I liked that much more than being the Secretary of State for International Development in Britain, where I had a $20 billion yearly budget. Do I spend $150 million on education in Ethiopia, or $200 million on education in Ethiopia? Those kinds of questions didn't really interest me. Now, you can make the case that I was having more impact on the world as the Secretary of State for International Development with a $20 billion budget. But in terms of fulfillment, in terms of feeling a satisfying change and influence, I felt it much more at the level of managing an organization of 300 people.

Mounk: To close out the conversation, if people want to go and actually see the world and understand the world a little bit better, what do you recommend they do, what form of living or what form of traveling will actually allow people to come away with an enriched understanding of the world and other people and cultures?

Stewart: What changed my life was not traveling, but the 21 months I spent walking, on foot, 25-30 miles a day across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. And what had the profoundest influence on me was the experience of being in remote village houses, and just spending 550 nights in those houses and getting a sense of what people were talking about and thinking about the way in which the culture operated. Anybody who is seriously interested in international affairs, who wants to be a diplomat or work for the UN or work in the charitable sector, and who's young enough to do it, should put themselves in a remote village in a country like Malawi. Try to learn somebody else's language and get a sense of the lives of people in difficult positions in rural areas. Because you're not going to get much of that working out in a gym in Barcelona.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.