Understanding Politics: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

1068 words | 4 page(s)

In modern times, those seeking to utilize politics in order to further or stabilise their own positions within its operations, often vilify the very tool they hope to exploit. Politicians voice distaste for political activity. In this vein, Crick cites both Charles De Gaulle as insisting that he sought to “save” citizens from politics, and Fidel Castro as declaring “[w]e are not politicians. We made our revolution to get the politicians out. We are social people. This is a social revolution (emphasis in original) (Crick 16). United States candidates for office follow a longstanding practice of promising to remove “Washington” from their positions, once elected. From Andrew Jackson to Jimmy Carter, this strategy has proven successful, at least in gaining office. A current example is advertising by senatorial candidate Joni Ernst, who pledges to bring “Iowa values” to the District of Columbia (Trumball 1). The implication is that politics itself is undesirable, an impediment to governmental functioning. This assumption, however, fails to understand that politics is simply a tool or mechanism that structures, informs and defines political activity. Critising politics is akin to “shooting the messenger” that bears bad tidings. Metaphorically, holding politics—the process–responsible for unwanted results is lashing out at the blameless for results (Mehta 1).

As previously mentioned, such statements presuppose that political activity, hence politics, is inherently malicious or undesirable. It overlooks the fact that while politics, contrary to Crick’s assertion that “[p]olitics is, then, an activity” (emphasis in original) (15), in practice it is simply a mechanism that directs those activities deemed “political.” Leftwich supports the assertion that politics cannot be viewed purely as an activity but that:
Politics is a universal and pervasive aspect of human
behaviour and may be found wherever two or more human beings are
engaged in some collective activity, whether formal or informal
public or private. Moreover, I shall argue, politics is a fundamental,
necessary and functional process…feature of all human groups, institutions
and societies, not just some of them: it always has been and always
will be (100).
Leftwich terms politics as behavior, process and feature of the broader definition of politics as an activity.

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While many politicians have attempted to distance themselves from the existing political structure (or, under their definitions, from politics in general) by doing so they capitulate to the workings of politics. One has to “play” politics in order to “do” politics, corroborating the assertion that politics is an underlying format for action, not the action itself. According to Schwartzmantel, politics must be interactive, and cannot exist without two core elements—“power” as its basis and “the state” as its vehicle (Schwartzmantel 1). There are many forms of political structure or states, some deriving their power from consent (democracy, confederacy), some from coercion (autocracy/dictatorship, plutocracy, oligarchy), and others from divine designation (monarchy) (Schwartzmantel 3-4, Crick 23). Arguably, the requirements Schwartzmantel enumerates further bolster the definition of politics as a mechanism underlying the actions of states, as leaders and officials function due to some vested power, whether giving freely by the governed or not. Political actions can take many forms; each has its own blueprint or set of directives, just as various IT protocols serve the same function, disseminating information, but using disparate programming rules and languages. Politics mirror protocols.

A review of the works cited above reveals notable similarities and differences among the authors’ viewpoints. Crick begins his discussion by historically tracking the development of the common or majority view that politics is somehow a negative force. For example, he states:
For politics, as Aristotle points out; is only one possible
solution to the problem of order. It is by no means the most usual.
Tyranny is the most obvious alternative – the rule of one strong
man in his own interest; and oligarchy is the next most obvious
alternative–the rule of one group in their own interest (18).
Crick asserts that political activity is not only interactive between and among states, as Schwartzmantel insists, but within state governing systems as well. Thus while any form of political structure that involves consensus or responsibility to the governed, political action is mandatory. In the case of coerced rule, however, whether by military members, a dictator, or a totalitarian regime, the necessity for political actions such are receiving advise from counsel or seeking justification from the governed, is unnecessary. While Crick intimates that the need for some form of politics is unnecessary, if politics is viewed as a mechanism regulating and defining political action, it is inherent in any governing system.

Schartzmantel, focusing on power and inter-state relations, falls short of examining the underlying blueprint for internal political activity that supports such activity–politics pure and simple. He stresses the importance of legitimacy of power to politics: “any system loses its stability once it ceases to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects” (10). Loss of stability or legitimacy, however, does not signal the end of politics in a given state, however, for the basic understanding and format for political action in that state does not disappear with a specific leadership base. Indeed, the underlying workings of politics must provide a course of political action in such circumstances.

Leftwich, on the other hand, has composed an apology in defence of politics. Acting as his own devil’s advocate, he enumerates many examples of negative views about or examples of political action. He carefully distinguishes politics action. Indeed, he remarks that “where government is impossible, politics is impossible. Once again, distinctions can in fact be drawn. Everything is not politics” (29). While this may not be entirely correct, according to the definition advocated herein that politics is a mechanism not an action, it admits “everything” is not politics”. Leftwich concludes that “politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence” (33). The important word in this conclusion is “way,” which means approach, method or mechanism, not action itself.

Therefore, politics may encompasses a number of concepts—power, legitimacy, inter-stated activity, and such. These concepts, when translated to action, are not politics. The basis for political action, the blueprint or protocol, encompasses a more accurate definition of politics than political activity itself. Politics, strictly speaking, informs political activity, and is not responsible for instances during which that activity goes awry. Don’t shoot the messenger—that is, do not vilify politics due to negative actions or results of poor political decisions. Politics as a defining tool is omnipresent, but not omnipotent.

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