What Politics is and Why We Suck at it…

Look; if you’re going to be a political junkie, fine. I used to be one myself, and I understand it; it can be fun  on some level. However, I must warn you Hypnoto keep perspective. It’s too easy to just read about what you think of as “politics” and then imagine that “everyone” is reading the same things from the same point of view. Perspective is the key to not allowing “politics” to cloud your otherwise (presumably) sound judgment. Without perspective, we don’t see what should be right in front of our eyes.

Of course, if you’re ever to maintain perspective on politics, you have to know what politics is, as well as what it is NOT. And let’s be real; almost nothing that people talk about when they imagine they’re talking about politics is actually politics. Put simply, issues are not politics.

Pope FrancisConsider what happened recently, when the Pope was traveling up and down the East Coast. He was discussing a lot of very serious issues; the kinds of issues mankind has faced for centuries, and the kind that many people like to ignore because it may cost them a few dollars. He discussed poverty, immigration and climate change during his visit, and the American right wing (can we please start a movement to cease calling these people “conservative”?) excoriated him for it. Likewise, many liberals on the far left were gushing over him because he made good sense. However, both sides suffered from the same misconception; they thought Pope Francis was being “political.” None of those issues is political at all. One reason we can’t seem to get anything done these days is because both wings of the debate consider issues themselves to be politics.

Confused? You’re not alone. A great many Americans don’t understand what politics is, which is one of the major reasons “debate” in this country has gotten so bad. Issues themselves are not politics. Let’s look at the issues the Pope brought up this week, one by one:

Poverty – The issue of poverty is not political, it is an overarching moral imperative that we have to deal with. Poverty has always been a fact of life in a capitalist system; in order for the capitalist system to work, there must always be a pool of workers available to keep labor costs down, which means there will always be poor.

That means the rest of us have to acknowledge that and USE politics to alleviate the suffering, and make life for these people as bearable as possible. In other words, while the issue of poverty is not political, the solutions to poverty require us to use politics to enact them. Politics is about creating the policies and programs that alleviate the effects of poverty and keep them funded. Politics is about putting the pieces in place that make it possible to lessen poverty and its effects.

Immigration – Unlike most other issues, this one has, at its heart, politics, because it’s been caused by changes in the law resulting in unintended consequences. However, who gets to come in and who needs to be kept out is largely a moral issue. National borders are artificial, political constructs, which should be obvious, given their fluidity they are; look at the constant cries of “states’ rights” coming from the right wing these days. I mean, when Ellis islandyou drive across the desert, the only way you know you’re in Texas is because there’s a “Welcome to Texas” sign at the border and a speed limit sign saying 85 miles per hour. And yet, to hear Texas politicians tell it, you would think Texas was sacred land, wholly separate from the rest of the country.

Anyway, getting back to the point, the immigration issue right now has to do with the people from other countries who are already here and how to keep other undocumented immigrants out. First off, the estimates of how many are already here range from 11 million to as many as 20 million, and it’s a fact that we’re not deporting that many people, under the best of circumstances. Imagine arresting 11 million people, holding 11 million people and then paying for transportation for 11 million people, many of whom are from countries on the other side of the world. The logistics are not possible to meet, without taking into account the cost, which would be in the trillions; and I don’t mean just one.

But something has to be done; as a practical matter, having that many people in the country who are participating in the system, but who are not accountable to it is a recipe for disaster. That’s where politics comes in; we have to do something about that problem, but we can’t do that until we play politics the way it’s supposed to be played; we have to put serious people into positions of power in all 50 states who can seriously look at this problem and solve it. We solved this problem once, but then it was neglected later on, and now we have one entire political party that is dominated by people who refuse to take the issue seriously at any level. The issue is, how do we deal with this problem in a practical way that acknowledges our humanity, and we can’t do that when half the government deals with the issue in terms of black and brown and refuses to take it seriously.

Climate Change – Once again, this is not a political issue, it’s a moral imperative. Let’s be clear about something; when we talk about destroying the planet, that’s somewhat hyperbolic; the planet will survive, it’s humans  and other species that are at risk. The Pope put it perfectly; if you believe God created this planet for us, and made us “stewards,” as most major religions believe, then we are violating his trust by trashing our planet. In other words, if you don’t believe in God, you should work on this problem because it’s the right thing to do, and if you do believe in God, then you are charged with fixing it as a part of your responsibility as a human.

It doesn’t even matter if we’re causing it; we have a moral obligation as the only “intelligent” species, to preserve the planet for everyone. That means we have to err on the side of caution and assume we may be at least contributing to it and do something to reduce our contribution. We have to clean up our mess, which means we have to stop pumping so much crap into our air and our water and even our land. We act as if we need fossil fuels to live, when, in reality, about 90 percent of the fossil fuels we use are unnecessary. There is literally no downside; cleaner air, cleaner water, cars that last us 100 years instead of ten; even on the jobs front, does anyone really think coal miners who have suffered black lung for generations will mind trading out those jobs for jobs in factories making wind turbines and solar panels?

The way we solve these problems is through political means, but the issues themselves are not “politics.” One reason progressives have been largely ineffective is many on the far left think everything is politics, and we don’t focus enough on the actual politics that get us where we need to be. Politics is a process; the process we use to get things done. Your positions on issues are not politics, nor is your proposed solution to a problem. Politics in a democratic republic is about working to put the best possible people in place to make good things happen. We used to understand this, but many of the loudest of progressives don’t get that anymore.

Right now, we have a political party that has been taken over by far-right radicals, and they have an inordinate amount of political power, precisely because too many on our side of the politics don’t understand what politics is and how it works. Politics is about putting the best possible candidates into office and then persuading them to adopt as much of our agenda as possible. Instead, we choose the “perfect” candidate, trash all others, and when they lose, we write off the voters as “stupid.” All of that is profoundly stupid politics and it’s why we lose.

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One comment

  1. Thank you, Milt – I could not appreciate this more. While any given policy designed to address each of these moral imperatives may be political, the call TO solve the problems is grounded deeply in one’s morality. This does not need to be religious at all, but it does require that one sees each of the issues as a massive human and humane concern. Abandoning morality because we think the rightwing has co-opted the principle is ridiculous. They have not unless we step away from the commitment to it. When we find that many of us share the moral outrage at injustice and harm, we then can unite to address solutions. But first we have to regain the common morality that bound us during the civil rights, anti-war and other movements. If we let that go, we lose our momentum and our democracy.

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