Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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On Politics
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Becker

Many Americans are confused about our Republican system of self-governance. Following is my modest effort to help them understand it better, and for some, perhaps, also to understand their own role in creating the unhappy political situation in which we find ourselves as we approach the general election of 2012. (This is a revised version of the essay I posted in early September, 2010.)

Part I

Why do we have politicians?

Because a few hundred years ago a few English nobles felt that their kings and queens "disrespected" them, although they did not use that term. These nobles started a movement that led to better treatment by the monarchy. After a while, the common people, who were smarter than the monarchy and the nobility thought they were, got the idea that they too were being "disrespected." This novel idea led to some unruly behavior on their part, and after a while, a crude system of fair play called the common law came into being so the economy could recover.

Later, the English people decided that they didn't need the monarch for more than ceremonial purposes, and even later than that, the English colonists decided they didn't need the monarch at all. So the colonists revolted and became Americans. What is important here is that both the English and the Americans kept the law.

As did the English, the Americans also recognized that someone had to make the laws. After careful consideration, they decided that it would be better if the lawmakers were Americans, rather than, say, the French. So, the American Republic came into being, and they elected their neighbors to public office. They called these neighbors "politicians." This is the system we have today.

What do lawmakers do?

The answer that comes immediately to mind is that they make laws. This is of course true, but in fact, making the laws is the least important of their functions. The most important thing that lawmakers do is compromise with other lawmakers. Making the law is an afterthought.

Most people do not understand this, as was illustrated in a conversation I had two hours ago. (Really; I am not making this up.) I was speaking with a friend, whom I will call Jack. Jack proposed a solution to our current political gridlock; a "solution" believed in fervently by millions of people. Jack said that we should just stop talking in terms of politics—of left and right, Republican and Democrat—and focus instead on our problems themselves.

A moment's reflection will make clear that Jack's proposal is truly "fair and balanced" and "bi-/multi-partisan." It is so general, and so empty of content, that it can be supported by anyone of any political persuasion whatever. That is why heads nod sagely when it is proposed. Only when a problem is actually specified does the proposal become arguable—usually with great vehemence on all sides. To wit:

Among the problems Jack mentioned was making sure everyone had enough to eat and had a comfortable place to live. The constant political slant of the public debate was preventing us from addressing these problems effectively, he said.

I felt Jack's pain; but I also knew that he did not understand the true nature of politics, so I explained it to him.

First, I said that the laws of any nation are almost literally the nation's moral code. Certainly, differences between the laws of the formerly Confederate states and the laws of the formerly Union states make this perfectly clear. Even a county ordinance placing 4-way stop signs at a dangerous rural intersection represents a moral position. I leave it to the reader to determine what it is.

Second, I pointed out that where elected representatives, rather than a despot, make the laws, there will be serious differences of opinion on what constitutes "right" and "wrong" law. Thus, I said, it is not possible to avoid politics in addressing any public issue that requires the law for its implementation and/or enforcement. Let me give an example.

It happens that both Jack and I want children of poor mothers to have a nutritious lunch. Even if a mother is somewhat irresponsible in her care of the child, so that the child regularly comes to school hungry, we agree that the school should provide that lunch for him or her. We also agree that we have no problem paying for that lunch through our taxes. This seems to us to be the right thing to do. Thus, we want our elected Congressional representative to support a law that will implement and pay for a school lunch for all poor children in all states.

But, others live in our Congressional district too, and many of them have a different view of a school lunch program. For them, it is the wrong thing to do. They believe that a free lunch for a poor child is nothing more than a reward to her mother for not going out and getting a job. The best solution, according to this viewpoint, is for the child to become so hungry that the mother will finally get off her duff and get a job — ideally as an executive secretary or something like that. Or, if the mother is intractable, maybe the child will get so hungry that she will get off her duff and go out and get a job herself. (She could get a paper route, for example. She will then be able to experience the satisfaction of knowing that she is not asking anyone for a handout. This will more than compensate for her inability to stay awake in class.)

In fact, was it not just this kind of incentive that made America great? Without such incentive, will we not be conditioned to let others take care of us? Will we not become soft and flabby, and unable to resist aggression by those who hate us. Is not the school lunch program actually a national security threat—code red?

Now, what is important here is not the mere fact that Jack and I want to see a school lunch program implemented, and others oppose it. What is important is how many of us there are vs. how many of them. As always, it's all in the numbers.

If people like me and Jack are the majority in our district, it is likely that our representative will support school lunches. If our opponents are the majority, it is likely that our representative will oppose at least the idea of school lunches, if not vote against them outright. (The latter is the situation in my own Congressional district, where our young Republican Congressman, who constantly refers to the "socialist" policies of the Democrats, is always reelected by a landslide.)

But, sometimes a law (a.k.a. a "bill") is proposed that can only be passed with a few votes from the opposition.

For example, let's say that a Republican congresswoman — I will call her Michelle (not her real name) — wants funding for a particular enhancement on a military base in her primarily rural district. (Michelle of course opposes the school lunch program.) We will also posit that Michelle needs the votes of some Democrats to pass the bill. She goes to their most articulate spokesman — I will call him Al (not his real name either) — to ask for their support. The following conversation ensues:

Michelle:  (Suppressing a gag reflex as she approaches Al) Hi Al. I'm hoping that you'll vote for H.R. 222, my proposal to erect a 200' high monument to our brave soldiers outside the gates of the Norris Air Force Base.

Al:       (With a twinkle in his eye) Can you clarify, Michelle? Do you mean that our brave soldiers are outside the gates of Norris, or that you want to erect the monument there? Will it be a giant obelisk? (He winks.)

Michelle:  (Clearly annoyed) The monument, Al. And the final design hasn't been chosen.

Al:       Why should I vote for it?

Michelle:  (With a bubbly smile) Because it's the right thing to do, of course. You'll be applauded for your bipartisan, patriotic spirit.

Al:       Don't make me laugh, Michelle. It's pure pork. You introduced it only so that your biggest campaign contributors, Giant Concrete and Republic Steel, can rake in a few million bucks from the taxpayer.

Michelle:  Did not!!! I did it to provide jobs for my constituents. And, I'm sure that the monument will inspire local farm workers, who will pass by it every morning on the way to the fields, to work harder. Maybe they won't complain so much about how they're treated by the growers.

Al:       Sorry, Michelle, you'll have to do better than that. These two companies are themselves subsidiaries of the agribusiness giants.

Michelle:  (Ignoring his comment) How can we get to "yes," Al?

Al:       Well, maybe there's a way. I understand that you oppose the school lunch program that Bernie (not his real name, either) introduced: H.R. 150.

Michelle:  (Warily) Yes??

Al:       If you would be willing to vote for H.R. 150, I might be able to persuade a few of my colleagues to support H.R. 222.

Michelle:  (Again suppressing a gag reflex.) That's not fair, Al!! (An awkward silence as Al simply looks at her without comment.) Ok. But I can't vote for it exactly as it stands. You'll have to make some changes. For example, your program explicitly prohibits high-fructose corn syrup beverages in the school lunches. My corn growers would tar and feather me if I supported it that way.

Al:       Sorry Michelle, that's non-negotiable. And, in today's health-conscious climate, you'd get slammed for promoting childhood obesity.

Michelle:  (To herself: I really, really want this monument.) Well, how about if you allow the kids to have a 1 oz. package of potato chips with their lunch, instead of prohibiting them as well?

Al:       (After a pause) I think that will work. Several of our supporters have potato chip makers in their districts. But, you'll have to compromise, too.

Michelle:  (Staggering a bit at the word "compromise") How?

Al:       I think 200' high is a bit much. How about 50'? That's still pretty massive. It will cost the taxpayers less, too, which is what you Republicans are always talking about now that there's a Democrat in the White House.

Michelle:  50' won't do it, Al; you know that size matters. How about 75'?

Al:       (Another pause) I think we've got a deal. Want to shake on it? (He extends his hand.)

Michelle:  (At first recoiling in disgust, Michelle reluctantly takes Al's hand with the tips of her fingers. They shake.) Ok; deal.

Al:       Great!! I'll get the ball rolling and both bills will be on the floor next Monday. (Al leaves. Michelle takes out a handi-wipe and scrubs her hand.)

In the next election, both Al and Michelle are re-elected — Al because he helped poor children as his constituents wanted him to do; Michelle because she created a few jobs in the construction of a patriotic monument to America's soldiers, which pleased her constituents. Everybody won except Giant Concrete and Republic Steel, who were not happy with the lower profits they made from the smaller monument. But, they contributed to Michelle's re-election campaign anyway, because of her seniority and popularity. Then their lobbyists contacted the Republican National Committee and Grover Norquist to suggest that a less compromise-prone Republican might challenge her in the next primary.

The actual give-and-take between politicians is far more complex than this, of course, but my little scenario gives the general idea: it is not possible to avoid "politics" in our decision-making, and compromise is the essential characteristic of politics.

Part II

In Defense of Politicians

Even if we are not active participants in the national sport of politician-bashing, most of us nod in sober agreement when someone disparages the political class. I have myself, though, actually defended politicians — once responding to such a letter in my local newspaper. I said, in effect, that politicians are not all that different from those who elect them. This inspired a retort from another disaffected neighbor: not only was I mistaken in my defense of politicians, but because the original critic had been "kind enough to take the time and energy to share his personal views on how he sees politics and politicians," I was "deplorable" for disagreeing with him.

Nonetheless, because I shared their own expressed anger that politicians took money from various special interests, and thus seemed to a significant degree to be beholden to those interests, there seemed to me to be a possibility for some agreement between the three of us. So, I responded to the second angry letter with the suggestion that we might all be able to support public financing of elections. This could at least take special-interest money out of the campaign cycle, and might result in more independent, constituent-tilted lawmakers. Neither of my angry neighbors responded to that suggestion in print. More on this lack of response below.

First though, let me elaborate on my suggestion that politicians are not all that different from the voters who elect them. Consider:

If you have ever compromised, you are a politician. If you voted for someone—maybe twice—because you would want to have a beer with him, you are certainly a politician; in a sense, you tried to elect yourself to office. If you are a deacon or a pastor of a church, you are a politician. If you have ever played to the strength or weakness of another, you are a politician. If you have ever played your cards close to the vest so as to avoid social ostracism or economic harm, you are a politician. (Small town America is filled with such skilled politicians — I know a couple of them myself.) The list goes on and on, and is the basis for the truism "the personal is political."

The fact is that politicians are really just ordinary "personal politicians" who feel that they have something to offer on a larger stage. And, many national-level politicians came from small-town political ranks. Given our political system, we have to elect someone to represent us, and I suggest that we should be happy that some of our compatriots are willing to do this thankless job. I certainly do not want to be a politician, and no one I know, regardless of their low opinions about politicians, are inclined to run against their representatives in the next primary. And, if they were to do so, and were they to win, they would find themselves playing the political game exactly as did their predecessors. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was fiction, not docudrama.

This leads to only one conclusion: because we voters—in our capacity as the majority in any election—put our elected representatives into office, we are responsible for whatever they produce while in office. This fact should be obvious to everyone, but it seems to be completely opaque to fervent politician-bashers. Or, perhaps, it is a subliminal denial of responsibility.

For example, in his 1980 campaign for the Presidency, Ronald Reagan told us that government could not solve our economic problems because government was actually the cause of those problems. His answer, of course, was deregulation of business and industry, as well as gutting pesky environmental protection laws. Give America's CEOs the freedom to carry on according to the grand precepts of laissez-faire capitalism, Reagan advised, and they would naturally do the right thing by America. Everyone from top to bottom would benefit. After Reagan was elected President, a frightened Congress, and many state legislatures began deregulating. One sector was the Savings and Loan industry. The result was the wholesale looting, and consequent failure, of thousands of thrifts when white-collar crooks took advantage of the relaxed rules to carry off billions of dollars for their personal use. The bill was paid by the taxpayer.

Whatever the remedies were that restored the thrift industry to a semblance health, they did not translate into the electorate's opposition to the deregulation of the energy industry, which began about a decade later. The results are well-known; the Enron scandal being the most egregious. (If you have a strong stomach, read Enron Traders Caught on Tape)

Nevertheless, in spite of the 2008 near-meltdown of the American economy caused by the financial cowboys of credit default swap and collateralized debt obligation fame, Republican leader John Boehner vowed that if Republicans won the legislature in the 2010 mid-term elections, they would "declare war on the regulatory state." The Republican base roared its approval, even if it meant that there would never be a Republican-instigated regulatory brake on the bankers' greed.

The fact is that for over thirty years, President Reagan's mantra that government is the problem was swallowed whole by millions of Americans, and with disastrous results. For all practical purposes they were like children who expect a sweet because they are told to shut their eyes and open their mouths. 1 The sweet here was deregulation-flavored Kool-aid. They swallowed it with enthusiasm, and we all are now paying the price. But they are in deep denial over their own complicity, and as I write this in mid-summer of 2012, it is clear that they have still not learned their lesson. They now dominate the Republican Party — they are the Tea Party.

Finally, a comment on my suggestion that perhaps my two angry neighbors and I could agree on the benefits of getting the huge amounts of special interest money out of political campaigns. My proposal was in fact an invitation to a more mature discussion of the problem. As I mentioned above, they did not respond.

I suggest that they did not respond because they are not serious—they are not serious either about understanding the way politics really works, or even about the corruption they are purportedly so angry about. Their primary goal is simply to rant, and to keep the discussion focused on the traditional scapegoat—the politician. Denial of their own role as enablers of our corrupt system is certainly in play here, but I believe also that there is a deeper reason: they would rather have the corrupt SCOTUS-approved system we have today than have a single dime of their tax dollars support the campaign of a candidate with whom they disagreed. Better Enron and Bernie Maddoff than Bernie Sanders.

Politician-bashing is lots of fun. Learning how politics works, to say nothing of figuring out what we really want for the country takes work and thought. And the ability to compromise.

1 I am indebted to Bertrand Russell for the metaphor. His original comment reads: "... the reader is like a child which expects a sweet because it has been told to open his mouth and shut its eyes." Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Modern Library, ca. 1927. p. 45.

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Page updated September 1, 2012.