Politics. The subject is like some spectral terror, universally averred and incessantly skulking about the dusky corner of the civic mind.
In the vernacular, politics is a messy and fractious process: an exhausting exercise in futile exhortation. For partisan debate is not unlike Thomas Hobbes’ assessment of the human experience: nasty, brutish and short, only without the kind of final reckoning death provides.
But the hostility so many display towards political discourse does little to reveal what exactly it is about the subject that makes its contemplation so intolerable. Nor does the placing of political debate outside the bounds of social etiquette reveal much about what, substantively, politics is.
Indeed, it is difficult to precisely define politics, as the particular structure of government organs and the relationship between them greatly determines the nature of a society’s politics. For example, a state ruled by the diktats of a central authority is likely to have a much more monistic political culture than is a federalistic society wherein the locus of power lies with local people enacting community solutions; pluralism is more likely to prevail in the latter society as people have greater freedom to make decisions that fit the unique needs arising from the context of disparate lifestyles.
To understand politics, then, one must also understand the underlying culture of a society, particularly as that culture relates to the state. Does a populist desire for elected officials to act as champions for the interests of various identity groups permeate political culture? Or does rugged individualism and the desire to be left to one’s own devices define the thinking of a greater part of the populace? If the former attitude is typical of a society, it will have a more robust and all-encompassing national body than will a society populated by people who hold the latter view. The scope of the powers entrusted to various levels of government hinges upon popular attitudes. Efficacy — the feeling that one’s voice is heard by lawmakers and is influential in their legislative decisions — is also affected by ideology. Rugged individualists will surely feel dispossessed by a government dominated by a centralized political body that aggressively regulates private affairs. The same principle holds true for proponents of political progressivism’s hands-on approach to regulation who live in a regime run by libertarians.
Politics, clearly, is a term with many connotations. In their own right, each has substantive meaning. But it is when all are considered in concert that a society’s politics can be best understood. The image of the body politic is an apt one. For, as an organism needs many unique and disparate parts to perform their respective functions if it is to be functional, so too is the constitution of a political society the sum of its constitutive parts. A whole, whether it be biological or political, is the product of all the elements which make it up. Each part — or faction, to speak in more political terms — has sovereignty in its own right, because it has its own role. And the relationship between different factions dictates the nature of the organism when considered from a macro view. In political societies, this means individuals whose unique needs, views and interests dictate the context of their lives bring their perspective to issues with a broader scope. National, state and even local political issues consider macro solution for macro answers — those matters that affect the relevant community as a whole — but the debate that surrounds them is a product of the interactions between individuals with different perspectives.
The crisis of modern politics is one of paradox. There is a sense of virtue to many brusque dismissals of political discussion: it is fractious and tiresome and therefore has no place in polite conversation. Yet, the democratic sentiments that are the cornerstone of contemporary political thought elevate popular will to the apex of public morality. To invoke the term “democracy” is to conjure up vague conceptions of equality and the will of “the people” as the supreme impetus of political action. In many regards, the will of the people is a law unto itself: the majority opinion ought to prevail because it represents the greatest bloc of the people, whose popular sovereignty is the sole font of legitimate government action. This is a form of the barbarous moral teaching that “might makes right.”
This definition of democracy is not only imprecise but self-serving, as those who interpret the term so colloquially benefit from it the most. This nebulous connotation of democracy serves as an indulgence of sorts, absolving those who eschew political discourse to feel free of the shame that ought to accompany those who imbue themselves with such political power than decline to lift a finger on their own behalf. At the same time, the sense of virtue in ignorance that accompanies contemporary views on popular sovereignty banishes the intellectual seriousness which substantive political discourse demands to the realm of academia. But the populist tinge to modern democratic attitudes too often connects academia with elitism, branding those who dedicate themselves to the serious study such subjects demand with contempt. Expertise becomes a tainted pejorative. The crux of the problem with the “everyman” approach to democratic theory is that it couples a sense of pride in political ignorance with an emphasis on popular sovereignty. Those actors given ultimate authority in all political matters — the people — are also those who prize a state of self-imposed naivete. Disgust with the abrasive nature of political conversations encourages many individuals in the electorate to place themselves in a state of self-imposed alienation from all matters touching on governmental affairs and instead appoint populist champions who act as an intermediary for their interests. Such a practice is incongruous with the emphasis the everyman view of democracy places on popular sovereignty and, unsurprisingly, engenders a political ethos where politicians who pander to aggrieved identity groups are promoted over those focused on serious debate. This effect only contributes to the culture of contempt with which so many view politics.
The crisis of modern politics is also one of degenerative necrosis. Long-standing refusal to deal with anything beyond the most perfunctory of political issues — and then only in a superficial and self-gratifying manner — has created a body politic so riddled with disease that the severity of its initial symptoms has been compounded exponentially. Like explorers of yore who navigated by maps drawn of supposition and the dubious details of second-hand accounts, the modern polity is adrift on the uncharted waters of a vast and unknown ocean. And the only navigational tool it possesses is responsible for leading it farther and farther afield.
The goal of this series is to redraw the political map and dispatch the mythical beasts that reign in the murky twilight shadows of those grounds of civic discussion which the polity has ceded. From first principles that form the philosophic foundation upon which political society is built to more operative issues of dysfunction in governmental bodies, each chapter will address an issue that is either woefully misunderstood or willfully neglected by modern discourse.
But before this can be accomplished, some groundwork must be laid. Politics is nuanced, this is true, but there are several overarching topics that are relevant regardless of the connotation evoked by a particular issue. These concepts are like rough sketch of form done as preparation for a more detailed study. Their outline ensures the working hand of the artist keeps everything in its proper proportion.
While it is difficult to define politics broadly, it is far easier to define what is it not. Individuals and their private affairs are not the concern of politics. Politics is exclusively concerned with matters that affect broader swathes of the populace. Politics, therefore, contains an innately communitarian connotation. But the fact that politics deals with the interests many people rather than the interests of a singular person does not mean it can escape the fundamental laws of nature. Humanity is still at the core of politics and this means the first impulse of politics must be towards preservation. As Aristotle notes in the early pages of The Politics:
Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.
Understanding this is imperative to understanding the motivations behind many civic behaviors. Good, regardless of whether it applies to the individual or the community at large, is defined in reference to one’s continued existence. Political regimes, therefore, have a bias towards stability, for it is from stability that one’s continued existence comes. It this fundamental natural precept that gives rise to the desire to entrench oneself within the organs of power.
The tie between stability and survival, which sits at the pinnacle of nature’s morality, is also crucial to understanding another concept fundamental to politics: it is hierarchical. Good, in this instance, is contextual. The politics of a locality upholds a different conception of good than does a national politics because the set of assumptions from which each is working is influenced by factors endemic to the context of the lives of the individuals who make up these respective communities. Politics becomes hierarchical because these self-referencing conceptions of good fold in upon themselves: the individual brings his lens of experience to community issues, as does his neighbor. Whatever grievances these actors have does not change simply because the scope of the issue in question moves from the local to the national level: the experiences of the individual in his community are as relevant on the national stage as on the local. An individual’s membership in one group is not negated by his membership in a larger one. It is simply that more factors become relevant to an individual’s view as the context in which he must act changes.
One final conclusion that can be extrapolated from the preceding ideas is this: politics is the sum of its constituent parts. It is not, as might be suggested by the everyman’s emphasis on popular sovereignty, an entity that has agency on its own. Whatever characteristics a political culture possesses are a reflection of the ideas and interactions of the people living within it. The majority opinion does not become a self-catalyzing force by dint of being the majority opinion. A majority is simply an expression of the consensus view held by all those who make it up; it cannot become more than the sum of those parts because the makeup of the majority changes if even one individual changes his or her attitude. Dispelling the idea that collectives has some supernumerary power to command the public arena — particularly over those whose views diverge from the majority’s — is crucial to eroding many of today’s operative political myths. Chief among these is the myth that political identity is some sort of sentient societal force that has the power to command citizens. Civic worth is, like politics, contextual: it can only be defined by the self, in consideration of one’s life. There is one constant in the nebulous world of political terminology and this is the individual. No force, whether justly or unjustly exerted, can override that most fundamental of natural instincts: survival. Individuals retain their sovereignty and retain control of their identity because each man and woman alone is capable of determining what goods means for his or her life. The burden of care for political health, therefore, rests squarely on the shoulders of individuals, not any groups that form within a polity. Sovereignty demands and that each individual be a lobbyist for his or her own interests. Disinterest or disgust with the political process do not relieve the individual of this responsibility, because, most fundamentally, politics is whatever citizens interacting with each other choose it.
Stay tuned for the next part in the series.