Everyone bad mouths “politics”. Who would dare defend dirty tricks, rigged elections, backroom deal making, base appeals to popular prejudices, empty slogans, false promises, legislative gridlock and the corrosive influence of money upon the system? Just as the preparation of sausages is not for the squeamish, politics, we’re told, has little in common with church picnics. But have we tampered with the jury? Have we really allowed the defendant his day in court? Would it be sufficient to say giving birth is a bloody, painful, even agonizing experience without acknowledging the end result? The problem is we’ve allowed one aspect of politics to define the entire process and we’ve paid a price for our cramped view. Let me offer a more expansive and potentially more useful definition. Here’s what’s going on.
Politics as Circus: This is mostly what the public sees and reacts to and what turns it off. Manipulated district lines – campaigns that descend into the gutter – incumbents re-elected again and again – politicians feathering their own nests – powerful lobbies calling the shots – pointless parliamentary maneuvering – legislative discussions with few in attendance – Legislation that gets watered down, critical components stripped away – It’s not a pretty sight but it’s not all there is.
Politics as Platform: Issues of all sorts spill out continuously upon our society as groups advocating one course or another attempt to attract the public’s attention and advance their cause. It is, however, only after specific issues enter the political arena, become incorporated into the platform of individual politicians, or party organizations that they gain momentum, stand a chance of becoming public policy. Politics provide an invaluable forum, sets the terms of discussion and can at times transform slogans into legislation. The efforts of civil rights demonstrators eventually bore fruit in the Civil Rights and Voting Right Acts of the mid-60s. Environmental organizations left their mark on legislation curtailing the pollution of our waters.
Anti-abortion groups succeeded in getting numerous state legislatures to introduce specific requirements before abortions could proceed and organizations in favor of limiting the rights of gay Americans helped win passage of the Defense of Marriage Act. To promote your cause, it’s best to go political.
Politics as Power: Beneath the blather and bravado the political system, either through its actions or inactions distributes enormous benefits and reflects the power relationships within our society. Not evenly and not fairly do the “goodies” go out to those who understand what’s at stake and spare no efforts to secure as much as possible. The powerful, the organized, the well-connected enter this competition with decided advantages. They can dispatch legions of lobbyists to Washington, pour money into candidates’ coffers and, through their organizations, seek to frame public understanding and discussion in a way favorable to their goals. They will, of course, be contending with opposing interests. Sometime it’s a fair fight. More often superior resources and influences make it one-sided. Whatever the outcome, power plays are everywhere, bare knuckles scarcely concealed.
Politics as Pacifier: There is a point of view that insists politics should be a pristine process, that all one need do is determine the public good, then enact laws to advance it. In a perfect world we might experience something like that. Here on earth, as we’ve noted, it’s a “jungle” out there, most everyone out for themselves, every group attempting to advance its own interests. In such a contested environment politics serves as a peace maker, a system that attempts to mediate among a bewildering variety of players. Here the wheeler-dealer, the deal maker, the compromiser, performs a vital role. Essential are politicians who can articulate a principled position, can cross the aisle, coax the recalcitrant, distribute rewards and let most everyone feel they’ve gained something. Under the table deals, back room maneuvering and strenuous arm twisting can be expected in a process that will not be highlighted in civics class textbooks. And what emerges is no masterpiece, but a carefully crafted piece of ungainly legislation that satisfies no one but offers something for nearly everyone. We’re talking here, as Donald Trump understands well, about the “Art of the Deal”!
Democracies are messy, we hear, and so must its politics be. We should not be distracted and diverted by its outer trappings, its gamesmanship and gimmickry. If we are, we’ll only get furious and simply turn off. That may be what certain powerful interests hope we’ll do. If people hold their noses, declare a pox on both their houses, take pride in not voting or participating that will simply pave the way for others more energized and determined to take matters into their own hands. Politics is not a form of comic relief; it is at its core about reconciling opposing interests, maintaining some semblance of the public good and constructing compromises to achieve these ends. It is to be taken seriously.