Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.
As a professional editor and writer working in an unspecified niche market (to narrow it down a little, I’ll call it “law” and leave it at that), I spend a lot of time staring straight into the heart of the sausage factory that is government—analyzing court decisions, tracking bills through the legislative process, untangling the machinations of various administrative agencies.
I find the subject of government fascinating. It’s just too bad there’s so much politics wrapped up in it.
It seems to me that “government” and “politics” are synonymous to most people, but I don’t see it that way. I know there’s considerable overlap, but I don’t think they’re the same. “Government” is about doing things, taking care of business. “Politics” is about the eternal junior-high-school struggle for dominance over one’s peers.
In college, I majored in Political Science, but it always seemed like a misnomer. I never studied elections or the art of jawboning (aka, “moral suasion”); I studied foreign policy, which we rarely examined with a granularity more specific than “The Pentagon” or “The State Department.” In fact, most of the time, we talked about nation-states as “rational actors,” like black boxes from which “policy” emerges, always with the general aim of furthering their “interests.”
Some courses dealt with the intricacies of decision-making—for example, the debates and personal conflicts that went into the Kennedy Administration’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis—but that’s as close to actual “politics” as I could stand to get.
Sordid, dreary things like elections and filibusters and scandals had much, much more to do with my other major: Journalism. Journalism, as an industry, is fixated on the “professional wrestling” aspect of politics—the shouting, the exaggerated emotional displays; in short, the nonsense—to the near-exclusion of everything else. In my opinion, the general news biz is terrible at covering the actual workings of government; almost everything I read in any newspaper (including the “elites,” your New York Timeses and Washington Posts) about the actual functioning of government—such as, say, the process of granting patents to inventors—is so half-assed and distorted that it’s worse than useless.
The pro wrestling stuff is what sells, apparently. Although I think it would be pretty tough to find anyone who isn’t dead sick of it all. The noise, the sleaze, the utter tackiness of the whole shebang (to use a little technical terminology). I don’t know if it really sells, so much as it’s become a self-perpetuating, metastasizing game of Katamari Damacy, but I digress.
I’ll say something you probably don’t hear too many people say: I think that, all things considered, most of the time, our government works remarkably well. OK, I’ll pause here and wait for you to stop laughing.
By and large, we have a relatively stable society. The word “relatively” is key, of course. Things could be a lot better, but they could be a lot worse, too. I’d encourage the bark-eaters who enjoy making idle (and loud) threats to “go Galt” (“go off the grid”) to spend a few hours studying Somalia, a country that essentially has no government at all, and decide if that’s an example they really want to follow.
Most of the time, western society works pretty well, in terms of day-to-day life. Potable water at the twist of a handle, etc. Without belaboring the point, I think government has played a significant role in creating and maintaining a lifestyle that most of us would miss if we lost it.
So I think there’s “government,” and there’s “politics,” but if you want to allow broad participation in government (and I think we do), you can’t get to the “government” part without some “politics” first. The trouble with ignoring politics (and all the sick-making ugliness every sane person hates) is that politics has a real effect on government. (And vice versa. See, e.g., Katrina.)
Somehow, along the line, either thanks to or in spite of politics, we ended up with a government that has done some things well. If you look at government like an engineer, it’ll drive you up a tree very quickly. If you expect it to function like Norm Abram whipping up an armoire on PBS with all the apparent effort it takes me to pop open a beer, you will be very disappointed.
There are well over 300 million people living in this country, of incredibly varying backgrounds and viewpoints. If the political process had no rancor or friction at all, I’d be really worried. That would make me wonder how many people have just been shut completely out of having any part in the operation of the country—even the right to bitch and moan.
Politics. It’s there, and I can’t look away. For fear of what it’ll do if I close my eyes.
So, to wrap it up: I write about government for a living. I think I am going to try to write some stuff about politics here. I’ll probably find it impossible to take it seriously a lot of the time, but we’ll see.