Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What’s The Issue?

Once during my days in Washington, talking to a senior Congressional aide—we were walking together down a corridor in the Senate—I was explaining a problem relating to the environment to him. He said: “Okay, okay. But what’s the issue?” I said: “I’m talking about a situation here. Why does it have to be an issue?” The aide now stopped in his stride and earnestly touched my arm. “Listen,” he said. “Around here nobody is interested in what you call a ‘situation.’ It has to be an issue. That’s the currency here. Issues. Whose ox is being gored. Situations…” He let that trail out by way of saying “way, way, way beneath all notice.”

Issue means a clash, and a clash is always between groups, organized groups. And for groups to come to the notice of the political sphere, they have to have power—clout and visibility. Furthermore they have to be aligned in some way with one of the parties. Politics is ultimately a contest between groups for power and resources. Political parties come about fluidly as aggregations of groups. Principles—and ideologies based on them—are supplied, are labels pinned on them later. Parties are bottom up social structures built of issues, of conflicts. Their interests are not in justice, say; their interests are in interests. Not surprisingly a party can remain an institutional entity even as its labels gradually change. The history of our parties illustrates this.

The people we call Democrats now were originally Anti-Federalists who represented small people, indeed they claimed all the people—a tired, over-worked little donkey ridden by a big fat banker. They were agglomerated groups threatened by Hamilton’s nationalist banking policies, originally very much opposed to Big Government and committed to states rights. Later they were known as the Democratic-Republican Party (1832); yes both names in the same party a good half of which was later pro-slavery. Little People-hood did not include the slaves. The Republicans formed around 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery to the new territories of the west. They were northern in origin and motivated by a desire to modernize the U.S. economy, which expanding slavery threatened. This, of course, put them in opposition to the slave-owning south. Their opposition to slavery was only partially pure—but, of course, that stance attracted the more advanced and religiously motivated segments of society, not least many Democratic-Republicans. Democrats have morphed into the party of activist government—although once opposing it. The Republicans are still trying to modernize the economy by a having become the party of capitalist ownership and those who fancy themselves aligned with it.

My point here is that seeking for a principled approach to governance is to misunderstand the nature of politics. It is entirely about interest and only ever incidentally principled. The principles can change, indeed morph into their very opposites. Thus liberals once were laissez faire in economics and intent on curbing government interference in the market, never mind individual freedom. That label, meanwhile, has become attached to the Democrats while those actually supporting such views are called conservatives—the very same people who, looking back a long ways, once advocated the divine right of kings.

The bald truth of the matter is that politics—and the higher it reaches the more true this is—is strictly about power and really nothing else. Or to put it more mildly, if principles come in conflict with a party’s interests, principles will be left behind. To view parties—or government for that matter—as structures of principles is to mistake a collective for an individual. We can demand principled behavior from individuals—especially if we can enforce our demands. Large collectives are not actually reachable that way. That is why the message is never in agreement with the facts on the ground, except by exception. Very rarely towering personalities emerge who, for a time, manage to give governance the semblance of principled behavior. Names that arise to me at random are anciently Charles the Great (the only reason why we remember one French king of yore) and more recently here figures like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR.

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