In these days there is a masterclass in politics being given by the Obama administration in the US and the Brown Government in the UK. Two teachers are demonstrating, vividly and compellingly, both what politics should be for and what happens when it fails. One teaches a lesson in greatness, the other in baseness. Students of the subject, take note.
In both Cairo and on Omaha Beach in Normandy, President Obama has lifted not just our spirits but our hearts and minds. He names the truths that we have to face; he reminds us that history is made by choices; he refocusses our attention, so that we see the larger goal to which our common humanity bids us reach. He talks of great covenants and heroic actions. He appeals to our better selves in order to help us accept the challenges we need to face. He knows that all politics starts with an energy and commitment to work together -- for it is only then that change becomes possible. Strengthened by a clear electoral mandate, bursting with the gifts of statesmanship, exploiting -- as he should -- the "unlikely story" of his heritage, President Obama gathers the world's attention in order to defuse the clash of civilisations and forge new possibilities for peace. It is not Obama's own gain, or his party's, which is at the forefront of his speeches and actions, but the common good of humanity.
When it is like this, politics is one of God's greatest gifts. Like religion at its best, it delivers meaning and promise and hope; it stirs into action the better part of our natures; it binds us together on the basis of our common interests and values; it quells the querulous, and gently prises open human hearts.
On my side of the Atlantic, the contrast could not be greater. There are no horizons to focus on, because the ship of state is engulfed in an appalling storm. Its captain stares grimly into the looming darkness, brooding and fearful, waiting for the next rock to loom out of the water. All around him there are plots and counter-plots, resignations. leaks and briefings. Government has turned in on itself. obsessed with its own survival. Even as Gordon Brown was telling journalists that he is determined to carry on, news of another ministerial resignation was flashing on their Blackberrys.
This lesson in politics is the exact reverse of the previous. In this case the focus is not on the common good but on the gain and survival of individuals and cliques. If the parliamentary crisis has spotlighted the use of public goods for private ends, the crisis engulfing the Government raises the question of the state being used for partisan ends. The governing party has come third in local elections; it is about to do appallingly in the European elections. The British public blames Labor for the parliamentary crisis, and wants a new Government. A majority of Labor MPs want Brown to go, yet are afraid to demand he do so for fear of an early election at which they think they will lose more seats. Meanwhile ministers fight it out with each other, and defy the prime minister's attempts to move them, while others, their ambitions thwarted, issue scathing attacks on him.
If Obama's administration shows up politics as a noble and uplifting form of public service, Brown's displays politics at its most repulsive. One is a politics of grace, the other of disgrace.
This is not just about the men involved. Obama is not a saint, nor Brown a demon. But it is about two kinds of politics.
Now, of course, is the time for a general election, to change the Government and to revamp a discredited Parliament. This is why democracy was created: so that a Government that has lost the legitimacy of public support can be voted out, and another voted in. But until that election is called, the British system makes this very hard -- and almost impossible if a sitting prime minister decides to tough it out. Hence the remarkable suggestions that the Queen should exercise her theoretical power to ask Brown to stand down.
That is unlikely. More likely is that Monday will see another move to unseat him, especially if the European election results are as disastrous for Brown -- a humiliating fourth place -- as expected. Meanwhile, a discredited leader limps on, his party diving still further in the polls, his Government shorn of legitimacy, as frustration and anger mount and the virus of factionalism spreads through the body politic.
It is not a happy spectacle. But it is as compellingly instructive in its own way -- the via negativa -- as is Obama's politics in the via positiva.