Don’t settle for less. Striving is an ideal our culture worships. We’re in love with the romantic notions of ‘having arrived’, of forging ahead—black and white ideals that seem oblivious to the complexity of real life. We tend to equate settling with acknowledged failure, and in making the act so derogatory, we often set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. Are we blindly aspirational by nature? At what cost? Robert Goodin‘s forthcoming philosophy book On Settling is an intriguing look at how this maligned practice is not only more realistic, but also more useful than striving. It easily recommends itself as required reading for anyone trying to get into college, survive relationships, or weather a less than direct career trajectory.
But what about voters and candidates? Many of us settle on a candidate to vote for without really being over the moon with any of them, so I asked Professor Goodin if this is actually a good thing. Read on for his response, including his advice on when he thinks our leaders themselves should ‘settle’.
So the Republicans have settled on – and settled for, without any discernable enthusiasm – Mitt Romney. (Which is not to say there is not a ton of money keen to unseat his opponent, from which even lackluster Mitt Romney will benefit.)
Were the Republicans wrong to do so? Well, they had to settle on someone. They need to have some name on the November ballot, after all. And in settling it typically happens that you settle for something less than the absolute ideal. In order to get on with things, you settle for something that is good enough for now – on the clear (self)understanding that you may come back and revisit the matter sometime later, as the Republicans quite certainly well come the 2016 election (assuming the Republicans don’t win the White House in 2012, which seems like a pretty safe assumption).
Democrats, for better or worse, are stuck with Barack Obama, an inspirational but ineffectual leader whose vacillation drives those who love him to utter despair. The problem with Obama, ironically, is a constitutional incapacity to settle on some policy and push it through – deriving perhaps from an overweaning desire to be liked, or at least accepted.
One of my colleagues, who also runs an organization on which many people’s lives depends, embraces the slogan, ‘I may be wrong, but I’m never uncertain!’ Obama needs to take a leaf from that playbook, acknowledge that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and learn to settle on some course of acting reasonably expeditiously and pursue it unwaveringly.
Pick horses and back them. At least for a time. There may come a time to have a review of policy, reconsider, perhaps change course. But unless a leader is prepared to commit firmly, at least pro tem, he is utterly incapable of acting effectively. Obama needs to find some courage behind the convictions that he so clearly harbors, but that he so clearly has difficulty in actually acting upon. Settle down. Focus. Do something, before your term in office is totally wasted. (And putting tons of money into the pockets of health insurance companies is pretty shocking as the only feather in your cap.)
None of these matters are actually discussed directly in my book On Settling (forthcoming from Princeton University Press in a couple of months). But such thoughts emerge naturally from my discussion there.
Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.