Monday, October 10, 2016

Why We Need Politicians in American Politics

If you live in the U.S., the first thing you probably think you know about politics is that politicians are lying, corrupt bastards and the world would be a much better place without them.

Let's think that through for a few paragraphs, shall we?

It's true that politicians are often evasive and love to answer questions that have nothing to do with the question asked. It's also true that politicians can also be corrupt and greedy, or at least they can seem to be overly-focused on campaign money and political 'pork'-- that is, projects and laws that benefit only the people who live in their own districts and states.

Current common sense dictates that these qualities have damaged our nation so severely that we should now seek to elect only people of pure ideals and ideas, or businessmen, not politicians, and certainly not 'political insiders'--a term that can mean a lot of things but usually refers to a politicians who have been around Washington for many years.

I think that the second part of this phrase--the part that wants to clean up Washington by ridding it of nasty, murky politicians--is where common sense gets it dead wrong. 

Although it might sound strange in this acid historical moment, I would argue that what looks like evasiveness (lying) and greed (corruption) to the American public, is actually part of a whole set of political skills necessary to the process of getting anything done. By purifying government of people who know how to use these skills, we, the public, have created paralysis and division--so much paralysis and division that our government has ceased to function normally.

In short, we need politicians. Plug your nose if you must, but we need skilled politicians badly.

Politicians do the ugly, hard, thankless work of bargaining and negotiating that most of us do not want to even see much less do, and without them we are left with a bunch of egomaniac loudmouths who like to go on talk shows and cable news programs but don't do much else.

A few of these zealots (Ted Cruz, are your listening?) enjoy pitching infantile tantrums that shut down the government over figments of the public imagination but keep the representatives in the public eye. This tactic is even less helpful than simply blathering on about your high principles and refusing to compromise those principals while Rome burns down around you.

It's easy to see how after Nixon and Watergate we confidently ushered in this era of political purity.

It's somewhat harder to see how to rewind this particular tape and try something more traditional and boring.

The Art of the Deal in D.C.

Jimmy Carter makes the point that in any political negotiation, every faction has to feel like it is secretly winning. If one faction holds most of the cards, that winning faction has to leave an opening for the other side to back off gracefully and save face.

If this sounds complicated that's because it is, and not everyone is good at it.

If you are a businessman, you may be able to take a scorched earth attitude and push through hostile takeovers and humiliating deals that leave your opponent resentful and grinding an axe. But if you are a public servant and you behave this way, you soon find yourself isolated and unable to push through the simplest piece of legislation.

Business and public service are not the same thing. Business is about making money. Public service is about, well, serving the public--doing the greatest good for the greatest number, even if the action that accomplishes that is not the action that creates maximum financial profit.

Michigan elected a corporate businessman to be its governor in the last election. That catastrophic bit of wishful thinking resulted in the permanent poisoning of thousands of children in Flint, MI in an effort to save, literally, a few cents per gallon on public water.

From the point of view of a corporation, which has very limited liability for such things, this was a smart move. From the point of view of public service, it was an unforgivable betrayal.

One Man's "Pork" is Another Man's Paycheck

For decades Alaska's Ted Stevens specialized in "pork", doing so well at bringing home the bacon for his constituents that Alaskans received yearly checks from the oil industry instead of paying state taxes. That is what got Stevens reelected term after term.

Stevens' focus on political pork is an extreme example, but it illustrates how what looks excessive at the national level looks quite different locally. Before Washington became so divided and dysfunctional, pork was one of the most powerful chips in getting landmark legislation through Congress.

Lyndon Johnson used promises of pork to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Lincoln used the same technique to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. In the process of negotiating these historic changes for America, both Presidents kept many cards close to their chests, and both were ready and able to politically push their fellow poker players against the wall if necessary.

Politics is a game, and the game has rules, and you can cheat and win. But if you throw the game out and just beat your chest in fury, nothing gets done.

Chasing Out the Good Guys

For the last decade the Republican party has been purging its members of moderates and insiders, men (mostly men) who had years of successful across-the-aisle politicking under their belts. Intelligent men respected by both sides have walked away in disgust.

In Indiana, where I was born, the exodus started with Evan Bayh and continued on to Dick Lugar, a man so universally respected on the topic of foreign policy that members of both parties relied on his expertise. These men were replaced with Tea Party zealots, newcomers who believe being a good representative means compromising nothing. The GOP now even includes Congressional representatives who don't believe in government.

Lest Democrats get too smug here, it's worth noting that the Democratic Party shows signs of following the same self-destructive pattern, insisting on the ejection of "insiders" (read: people who know how to get shit done) with politically correct satisfactorily left-leaning speech givers. Witness the Bernie or Bust phenomenon during the current Presidential campaign, a movement that became so insistent on ideological purity that Bernie himself was no longer good enough.

Reality is Not a Reality Show

Reality shows are cheap, filled with drama, and not much happens in them. Their main appeal is spectacle. Viewers get to watch people behaving outrageously and often cruelly and best of all, to feel superior to the people on the show. 

Reality, on the other hand, is expensive. Reality sucks the life out of everyone sooner or later, and that is why people cluster together in communities--so the strong can help the weak, knowing that other strong members will be there for them when their hard times come. To negotiate reality, as opposed to a reality show, we really are stronger together, but working together is hard.

If you think working with other people isn't hard, join any committee formed to accomplish anything, and see how that works out for you. I once was put in charge of a community that was to make PNB sandwiches and lemonade for a street fair. The internal discussion on how to get this done got so heated and acrimonious that after many, many hours of fruitless arguing one member mutinied and ordered all of it catered before anyone could stop her.

I could have made fifty PNB sandwiches and 5 gallons of lemonade for under twenty bucks in an hour or so, but we had to do it together, so we spent over $100 in the end.

You Monster, You Miscreant, You Public Servant!

So many surreal political moments have been floating by lately that I'm kind of losing track of them all, but one of the weirdest was surely the way Donald Trump kept flinging the ultimate insult at Hillary Clinton in the second televised debate. Not that she was married to a hound. Not that she set up her own email server. But that she had been working hard behind the scenes in Washington DC, doing the grunt work, the negotiating, the behind the scenes politicking that almost no one knows how to do anymore for THIRTY YEARS!!

He said this over and over again, and it started to make me a little woozy. There was a time when pointing out a public servant's longevity in DC would have been the highest praise and most genuine compliment. But we are now living in the age of the Reality Show, not actual reality, a time when competence in public service is considered a liability.

I don't have all the answers. In fact, I hardly have any answers. But I do think I have a sense of what the right questions are, and I do believe too many voters are not asking them.

I would also say, if you don't like the government you have, then step up and get involved in government.

Don't want to do that? Too messy? Too corrupt and smelly and time consuming?

Then maybe think about voting for people who are experienced in politics, not just good at shooting off their mouths.

You don't have to have a beer with them or even like them.

You just have to go to the polls and make an informed choice based on experience and facts.