Monday, January 2, 2012

Environmental Vow 19: Politics 101

Politics 101

Pithily stated, politics is the process whereby groups of people make collective decisions.

“Politics” permeates human society.  People tend to fixate on the more obvious examples:  municipal, provincial and federal governments.  But every group of people has political elements.  When a co-worker “sucks up” to the boss in order to get his own way, that is a political act.  In the same way, when a CEO organizes a Christmas party for the staff, he is also performing a political act in that he is trying to score “brownie points” with employees in order to encourage loyalty to the organization.   Of course, many of these sorts of things are totally unconscious.  The boss might be a nice guy who is continuing a tradition and who genuinely wants to “do the right thing”.  In the same way, the staff can just as well do the “extra bit” just because the boss really is a “swell guy”.   People can also do very self-conscious things to each other.  Bosses sometimes steal the credit that belongs to subordinates and workers will sometimes sabotage the efforts of others in order to keep them from getting a promotion in the hope that they will get it instead.  Anyone who has worked in any sort of institution would describe this phenomenon as “office politics”.   It happens just as often with people who jockey for a little better position at a “mac job” as it does with executives in the biggest corporation.

 This is exactly what politics was like in the time of royal courts.  Only instead of fry cooks and account managers trying to climb to the top over their co-workers, it involved courtiers with titles such as “groom of the royal bed chamber” or “Lord Chamberlain”.    Each of these officials would have a staff of “hanger’s on” and “lackeys” who would also have their own individual political intrigues with one another to gain favour and influence with their “great man”.  If the courtier was important enough, each of his hanger’s on would also have his own men, who would also have intrigues amongst themselves in order to gain favour.  In the old monarchies the entire nation was held together by these nested layers of patronage.  It was how all positions in the bureaucracy, the courts, the military, etc were filled.  It was how the countryside was held together by the landed aristocracy and how cities functioned through their Councils.    Smaller people gained help from bigger people by helping them with their big projects, and bigger people gained loyal supporters by helping them secure jobs, contracts, etc.

Political parties still operate in much the same way.   There are specific “big men” in parties who have groups of supporters.   If a big man gets enough supporters, he can become the head of the party.  If the party is big enough and has enough supporters in the general public, then he becomes the head of the government.

Why Politicians are Hypocrites

There are differences, though.  Patronage in royal systems is primarily about supporting individual people directly for help in return.#  In contrast, modern society is a little more about supporting and  promoting  a specific “worldview”.   This is where the “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” stuff bleeds in.   Most politicians are not totally “in the game” for money or power.  Instead, they believe that they are promoting a specific way of looking at the world that they believe is “right”, “true” and “just”.  They will often find themselves acting in what seem to be very duplicitous manners, but usually they see this in terms of “the ends justify the means”.  For example, a conservative politician who personally believes in the right of women to make up their own minds about whether or not to have an abortion  will often make noises about---and even vote for----making abortion illegal, but will justify this by thinking that if he doesn’t add the anti-choice vote to his core constituency he will never be able to win the election----which would be a catastrophe for the nation because it would result in “tax and spent liberals” taking over and destroying the economy.

Successful politicians realize that the only way to gain enough power to put through the changes that they would like to see in a political party, city, province, nation, union, NGO, etc, is by building a coalition to support them.  But usually this involves supporting positions that the political “great man” may not like, but which he finds he can “live with”.  Similarly, his political supporters have to make similar compromises in order to find a great man to work for if they want to have a patron who can help them climb the ladder of power.   This is why politicians seem to “waffle” or “flip flop” on issues.  The ones that want to win realize that they have to build a coalition of using people who have very strong opinions about conflicting issues.  Their job is to seduce enough into supporting them to be able to gain power and hopefully do something.

Power doesn’t only come in the form of personal supporters.  In jurisdictions without significant campaign finance laws, it also comes from the money that is needed to fund an election campaign.  And again, politicians find that to be successful they need to cater to the ideals of people who have a great deal of disposable income.  People often confuse a politician’s desire for money with personal greed because they don’t understand that the “system” usually demands that before a candidate can have any hope of being elected he or she will have to raise huge amounts of money for things like television advertisements.  Again, this put enormous pressure on politicians to at the very least pay “lip service” to positions they don’t agree with, and at worst, vote in support of them.

Even in societies with strict campaign finance laws based on regulating funding sources, such as Canada where it is illegal for corporations to make donations and all money must be raised in the form of relatively small donations by individual citizens, the system still exerts enormous pressure on candidates who need money to win elections.  When money is raised in small amounts from a large number of donors, whomever has control of the lists and can organize the “boiler rooms” needed to bring the money in will end up having enormous control over the careers of anyone who seeks public office.  It might be an improvement to have candidates “beholding” to the party fundraisers than wealthy individuals or corporations, but either way it means that the representatives who are supposed to look after the public welfare will inevitably find themselves forced to service specific interests instead of the public good.

I’m not aware of any society where strict campaign finance laws significantly limit the amount of money that a candidate may spend, but if such a system were in place candidates would then find themselves beholding to whatever institutions or individuals are able to provide enough volunteers to build a viable campaign.#

The result of having to balance all these different and often conflicting points of view in order to build a coalition of supporters while at the same time appeasing large donors is that hypocrisy is pretty much essential to the political enterprise.  It might be that if people were sufficiently deferential to their political leadership that they would elect governments imply on an assessment of the politician’s character and let them make all the decisions “as they think best”.  But unfortunately, the trend in politics has been for a long time to increasingly expect our politicians to enunciate a specific program and stick to it once in office.  Unfortunately, this sort of process would only work if there was a clear and coherent vision of where society should be going amongst the body politic.   The fact of the matter, however, is that voters believe a great many things, many of which contradict each other and many are based on total ignorance of the true state of affairs.  This situation means that the only politicians who have a hope of being elected to high office are those ones that have developed the ability to become convincing hypocrites who have learned to tell people what they want to hear instead of what they believe to be the truth.