Politics is one of those words, like “race” or “love” or “satisfaction guaranteed,” that has a stable instability of meaning. Everyone thinks he knows what he is talking about when he talks about politics, but I’m not so sure. It would be nice if the word could be restricted to discussions of practical arrangements, proposals to innovate or preserve, institutional mission statements, bureaucratic policies, the charters of social associations. The likelihood, however, is small. Michael Oakeshott explains why:
Here politics serves as a sheet of pregummed stamps for identifying allies and enemies. But the politics of literature is far more complicated. One small example. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the late twentieth century, in my opinion. On September 11, 2001, its stature grew. Unlike Don DeLillo (“There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists”) or Paul Auster (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), Roth demonstrates that terrorism is a “crime [that] could never be made right.”
The novel was celebrated by writers publicly identified as conservative. Carol Iannone, for example, whose nomination to the National Endowment for the Humanities by the first President Bush had provoked a tantrum on the academic Left six years earlier, praised the novel in Commentary. The father of a beloved daughter who sets off a bomb that kills a local doctor, Roth’s hero Swede Levov
The political commitment of the literary Left, then, is extraliterary. It rarely serves any purpose in literary texts, or not the purpose originally hoped for. Depending upon the institution in which he operates, the Leftist may even be a conservative, opposing such innovations as, for example, hiring political conservatives for the sake of ideological diversity. Even then, many activities which are advertised as political are anything but. Signing petitions, publicly expressing “support” or “opposition,” marching in public demonstrations, affixing a bumpersticker on the car—these are cards of identity. They are neither persuasive nor effective. They are, in truth, an affirmation of one’s self-esteem, a means of establishing one’s purity of heart, a reassurance (to oneself) that one stands with the angels.
This is not politics, however, but confession.
 Michael Oakeshott, “The Study of ‘Politics’ in a University” (1962), in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), p. 206.
 Don DeLillo, Mao II (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991), p. 41; Paul Auster, Leviathan (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992), p. 244; Philip Roth, American Pastoral (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 69.
 Carol Iannone, “An American Tragedy,” Commentary 104 (August 1997): 55.
 Edward Alexander, “Philip Roth at Century‘s End,” New England Review (Spring 1999): 183–90. Alexander is author of Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
 Ruth R. Wisse, “In Nazi Newark,” Commentary 118 (December 2004): 65–70.