02 January 2008

Why George Is So Dangerous (Or, the gap between politics and policy)

There is a gap between politics and policy. Good politics will get you elected. Good policy will improve quality of life. Good politics focuses on getting power over. Good policy focuses on giving power to.

If you were campaigning for the votes of medieval serfs, you'd probably win votes by speaking out against witches who curse crops and babies and generally make life miserable. Your promise to crack down on witches might even get you elected. By contrast, the policies you'd want to pursue to actually make life less miserable - policies like turning the commons into private property so as to encourage investment, weakening the grip of the church on communities, and encouraging free thinking - would be met with, at best, tepid support and advocating such policies might not just cost you votes but could, indeed, cost you your life. Because every era has its superstitions and cultural momentum, there has always been a gap between what makes for good politics and what makes for good policy.

For my nickel, no one has better illustrated the gap between effective politics and effective policy than George Bush and Karl Rove. The most obvious example of policy that made for good politics and bad policy was, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. George and Karl were masters of politics and the two stooges of policy, a frightening reminder that voters can be easier to seduce than reality. And there is nothing more dangerous than a politician who understands politics but has little interest in policy. Such a politician can do even more damage than someone with evil intentions.

For me there is a key to distinguish between policy and politics lies in the difference between power over and power to. Good policy not only improves lives, it gives people power to do things that they couldn't otherwise. Policy that provides education to children whose parents can't afford it, that is policy that gives people power to. Educated women have more power to choose whether to have families and how many children to have. Education is a classic example of policy that gives power to. By contrast, policy that only lets certain kinds of people own property or vote or choose whether to control one’s own reproduction is policy that exercises power over. This power over might make for popular politics (the distaste of the masses for minorities like gays, blacks, and rich), but it rarely makes for good policy that actually improves quality of life.

As you listen to the candidates, listen for what they are proposing and the kind of power that seems to enthrall them. Do they want to limit what people can do in bedrooms and boardrooms or do they want to enable people, including the poor or the minorities in privileges the mainstream take for granted? The former often makes for good politics - the latter usually makes for good policy. The more we’re aware of this, the smaller the gap between the two. After all, the success of a democracy ultimately rests on a confluence between successful politics and successful policy. What we don't need next year is to embark on another 8 year learning experience.


Allen said...

What drives me absolutely bananas (other than a banana split, of course) is how politicians can just be so damn good at speaking the language of policy with the subliminal politics message coming out at the same time. I think I'm being a good listener, attempting to really understand what they're saying, all the while I'm being hypnotized without even knowing it.
You ever see the video of the guy being almost stripped naked by a professional pick-pocket yet the poor, hapless victim thinks he's having a very pleasant conversation with the pickpocket? That's how I usually feel, like politicians are stroking and caressing me whilst they swindle me all at the same time.
I truly wish I can live another 50 years (and be coherent, to boot) just to read how history records Bush and his primary lackies Rove & Cheney. It truly is amazing how Dubya and his henchmen have managed to continue in their tyranical roles, even with Democrats supposedly having the "majority" in Congress. What scares me even more is the thought that King George might steal the next Presidency for his party.

Anonymous said...

I think the election is already over. On the issues that really make a difference, candidates from both parties are pretty much marching in lockstep; not always in their words, but certainly in their actions.

Regardless of who is elected, the leisure class has won, the working class has lost. Again.

Ron Davison said...

And all this time I thought you kept up on the news. The Bush administration has assured us that George will be vindicated by history. And really, if you can't trust their assurances, who can you trust?

I think your comment is more on the mark with regards to the Dems than the Republicans (Mitt and Huckleberry (as an older friend inadvertently calls him), for instance, have very ideas about welfare).

David said...

re your comments to Thomas: but they have (very) ideas anyway. This in contrast to the current ubermench who spouts change as his primary policy and now has convinced the Breck Girl he must follow suit. As always the issue issue really is disagreeing about policies and in Obama's case, I can't wait to hear one. Still, beating Hillary pleases me while not what good conservatives like me seek. Obama can win 60% of the popular vote (come November) and Hillary is OUR only hope for victory. Go H.

Ron Davison said...

I do think that the Republicans are going through more soul-searching about what they will be when George grows up, I mean goes out. I'll ping you for your opinion about which of the conservatives (religious, economic, or political) are most likely to grab the steering wheel in the next year or five.