The Politics of Politics

You’ve probably noticed the phenomenon yourself. Any discussion can be completely derailed, any subject can be avoided. All you have to do is say “Well, that’s just politics.” End of discussion. On to the weather and organized sports. Amazingly enough, even elected representatives can blacken one another’s reputations simply by accusing each other of “playing politics” with some important issue. Politics is a dirty word among Americans. Calling someone a politician borders on libel.

It was not always thus. Aristotle said politics is the main thing that distinguishes human beings from lower animals. (Which tells you how little Aristotle knew about cats, for instance. But I digress.) Politics, after all, is the way people make collective decisions, usually about our various visions of The Good, or about distributing scarce resources, without resorting to violence. In most other cultures, politics (a/k/a public service) is still an honored profession. In Central Europe, post-communist politics has achieved a new birth of respectability. What makes American attitudes about politics different?

Politics has been defined as the “manipulation of power,” and as “war by other means.” Usually, when we talk about “playing politics”, we are referring to something else, to what we call “party politics” and James Madison would have called “faction”–putting the success of one’s own group ahead of the merits of the issue in question. It is this sense of the word which we usually have in mind when we talk about certain things being “above politics”–for instance, that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” i.e. that foreign and military policy are “above politics.” Similarly, we appoint government functionaries through civil service, and appoint federal judges for life, to keep them “above politics”–that is, not beholden to or under the control of any particular “faction.”

But, like Madison, we tend to think “faction” is a bad thing because we see it as based on nothing but personal or group advantage. “Viva Yo,” as the Spanish put it. If a faction takes an ideological position of any substance at all, we assume that position is somehow conducive to the personal advantage of faction members, or they wouldn’t be adopting it. There is some basis for this, of course. Very few people who do any serious thinking about public policy issues arrive at positions that are likely to work against their personal advantage and survival. Most of us figure that what’s good for me is also good for just about everybody else, everybody who matters, anyway. But the real purpose of politics is not merely to allow factions to compete for advantage, but to allow divergent visions of The Good to compete for public support and power.

The other aspect of politics which most disturbs ordinary Americans is the necessity of compromise, splitting the difference, making sure everybody leaves the table still a bit hungry. To decide any issue this way, we think, is to start by presuming it can’t be very important. If it were, we would fight to the last drop of blood. Once a question transcends politics in this sense, war cannot be very far away. Once slavery stopped being a normal part of life, like breathing air, and became a moral issue for both sides, politics failed and war became inevitable.

Which puts an entirely different slant on placing anything “above politics.” That which is above politics is also beyond civil dispute. If “politics stops at the water’s edge,” then foreign and military policy lie outside the operation of democracy. Somebody–who may or may not have been popularly elected–decides what that policy should be, and our elected representatives then buckle down to supporting and implementing it. Even if circumstances change, so that a workable policy become unworkable, or a morally neutral policy becomes an abomination, the people and their representatives must continue to implement it to the bitter end. Any attempt to call a halt, for instance by cutting financial support, would be “playing politics” with national security, or so the supporters of the status quo insist.

Similarly, to say that education, or the environment, or other matters of public policy, are “outside politics” is to say either that we are prepared to “go to the mattresses” for them, or that we have unanimous agreement on The Good in those areas. No doubt there have been periods in our history when the latter was true. But, more often than not, this is simply wishful thinking among partisans of one or another vision who desperately want everybody to stop all this arguing and let them get on with their work. Merely wishing, however passionately, will not make it so.

We have to accept the fact that most communities and nations–and particularly ours–are host to numerous factions competing both for material advantage and for their visions of The Good. If we downplay the political realm as a place to play out this competition, we do not thereby eliminate competition. We merely force it to happen in other arenas and by other means. The most common alternatives are violence and money. If you cannot get a hearing for your vision of The Good within the political forum, you can always assassinate one of the more legitimate contenders, or buy off his supporters. Both of these alternatives to politics are popular in Third World countries, and both have achieved some currency even in the U.S. and industrialized Europe as well. The political realm, because its participants can so easily (and often deservedly) be accused of using public funds and facilities for personal advantage, has a hard time protecting itself against infringement by money or violence, and an even harder time distinguishing, in practice and in theory, between personal advantage and ideology.

In countries where, as here, the political realm still exists in a more or less healthy condition, it needs a few things to insure its preservation:
(1) better mechanisms for drawing more people into political dispute, especially people whose opinions are not normally solicited or listened to;
(2) a clear message that dispute is legitimate, and nothing is “above politics,” including ongoing military conflict, national security, and data and principles agreed on by scientifically-educated people; and
(3) mechanisms for public education about issues currently under public dispute, in structures accessible to any interested citizen, and encouragement of a strong ethos requiring those who take part in public debate to educate themselves first. What the “public square” did in a rather rudimentary but thoroughly personalized way in ancient Athens or revolutionary Philadelphia, the Internet is equipped to do in a somewhat shallower but far broader way. For the first time ever, we are technologically equipped to exercise democracy in cities larger than the Aristotelian fifty thousand families.

The questions that so far have been adjudged to “transcend politics” are all, of course, “controversial,” which is what we call any topic when we don’t want to discuss it. What the word actually means is that people disagree about it, and feel strongly about their opinions on all sides, but cannot imagine allowing their minds to be changed by rational argument.

So far, the U.S. has managed to form and preserve a relatively healthy political forum by keeping the really hot “controversial” topics out of it, or allowing discussion within the political realm only by properly licensed “special interest groups.” Such groups are likely to explore an issue more thoroughly and extensively, but they are not necessarily more knowledgeable than the average person on the street. On the contrary, they may just be better organized and more enthusiastic in spreading ignorance and misinformation (and sometimes even disinformation.) Which would be okay if all sides had an equal chance to be heard. But that kind of opportunity depends on all kinds of often unpredictable variables. Money helps a lot. Enough of it can guarantee a hearing. Being perceived as controlling a lot of votes or a lot of publicity is the next best thing. Absent these advantages, the best an interest group can do is try to get a lot of money or a lot of votes, and then parley them into access. Merely having strong, well-researched, carefully-thought-out, well-expressed opinions will not do the job. Maybe we need a more open political realm where it would.

Part of our problem is not merely that we distrust politicians (although, heaven knows, we do!) but that we distrust the political art, even (perhaps especially) when practiced by sincere advocates who are not pursuing their own material advantage. “Rhetoric”, which originally meant the art of persuasion, is now a synonym for the barnyard epithet. Most of us resent anyone who merely states a position without prefacing it modestly with “It’s only my opinion, but…” Anybody who has the nerve to try to change other people’s opinions–except, of course, in the mode of commercial advertising–is somehow infringing on our right to believe whatever we want. The converted are now the only people it is acceptable to preach to. Indeed, most advocacy activity these days is specifically directed only toward inactive sympathizers, and its purpose is not to change their opinions, but to persuade them to act on the opinions they already hold. The only non-sympathizers who can legitimately be confronted with one’s opinion are legislators and other public officials. The purpose of such confrontation is still not to change their opinions, but to change their official actions. We don’t really expect politicians to have opinions of their own, but only to weigh the vote-power behind the opinions of their constituents and act accordingly.

The blogosphere itself, the virtual ground on which we here confront one another, is one of the political arenas with the most potential for civil discourse among widely divergent constituencies. It can easily break down into either a commercial forum for sale to the biggest advertiser or a batch of mutually inaudible echo chambers for the narrowest possible ideologies. But the fact that nobody is paying us to be here, and that we have so far managed to refrain from both real and symbolic threats against each other, is a good augury. This may be the ground on which the American polity revitalizes itself, and we—with all our flaws, crochets, and ideosyncrasies—may be among those who can make it happen.



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