Limitation #11: The Adversarial Nature of Politics

TDG 21

Many well-meaning, qualified individuals, who have become very successful in their own fields of endeavor, have offered themselves into the political arena, believing that they have garnered experiences and wisdom that can benefit society. They view a political career as a service to their society, and putting themselves into a position of governance for these reasons is indeed a noble act. Many of these individuals would be an asset for the process of good governance.

So they choose a party that best matches their political inclinations. They work their way up the political party, win the party election, win the general election, and they are now in a position to do some good for the world.

Let’s use a typical suburban family as an analogy to the politician first gaining office. On Friday night, Dad announces to the family that he will mow the lawn Saturday morning. The rest of the family, for whatever reasons, is aghast with this idea and conspire to do whatever it takes to stop Dad from tomorrow’s planned task. In the middle of the night, Son #1 sneaks off to the garage and puts a little water in the lawn mower’s gas tank. Son #2 unloosens the wheels of the lawnmower so they are almost coming off. In the morning, Son #3 dumps all his toys on the lawn and refuses to pick them up. Then Teenage Daughter picks her father’s pet peeve and purposely engages him into an argument. The wife then turns the sprinklers on the lawn: “I thought you wanted to water — not mow — the lawn.” With all this going on, what are the chances that Dad will get his task done?

This analogy may seem a bit facetious, but this same atmosphere is part of the job of being a politician. Regardless of how hard-working, honest, and competent the individual is, that individual has immersed him- or herself into a shark tank, with many people who want to see him or her fail. Opposition politicians look for any weakness that can be exploited; the media look for anything that makes a good story. Bureaucrats, activists, and lobbyists who are not in favor of a politician’s stands on select issues will do whatever it takes to minimize that politician’s impact while in government. The politician also has to contend with politicians of the same party who are jockeying for a position of higher influence within the party itself. In the world of partisan politics, a politician has many more enemies than friends.

Unfortunately, the political processes within governing political parties have room for only a handful of influential politicians. This sets up a contest within the governing party itself to determine which of its many members actually belong to the influential group. If an elected politician or a backroom organizer from the governing party really wants to be influential, he or she must be prepared to do a lot of politicking — to the disadvantage of other politicians in the same party — to gain this position. Building and breaking alliances within the party, assuming greater responsibility for party functions not directly related to governance, poking fun at and chastising opposition politicians, and keeping corrupt party activities silent all become part of the game to become influential. If we insist on being governed by political parties, these unofficial rules for how to be influential in a party will always hold.

The media also have a hand in making life difficult for politicians. The politician has little room for error in how to present a position to the media. If a mistake is made, the media are quite willing to portray the politician in a negative light.

The adversarial nature and partisanship do not contribute to the process of good governance. With constant sniping at each other over who has the best ideas, each political party has assumed that the other parties have absolutely nothing positive to contribute towards solving society’s problems.

With this kind of self-righteous thinking, it’s not surprising that our legislators cannot see many of the angles surrounding various societal issues. Instead, they mimic children in a playground bickering about the rules of a simple game. If the western democratic model is to be the example for its citizens of how to reach collective decisions in other aspects of society, it is a very faulty example.

Many politicians become disillusioned with the process. Many of them give up; others resign themselves to the limitations of western democracy and try their best to work within it. Whatever the cause, most of these well-intentioned individuals are not contributing their full potential to society. Society has underutilized a valuable resource.

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