Often people argue past each other, saying things that create an impression of discord where none exists and failing to reconcile minor disagreements between well-intentioned parties. I think this happens because we use the word “politics” too many ways. Here I’m suggestion four distinct ideas that go by the words “politics” that are actually very different.
- Public Service — Public Service is any activity that is intended to benefit others outside a person’s own immediate circle of family, friends, associates and neighbors.
- Governance — Governance, or Administration, is activity, either paid or volunteer, that aims to run a program or an organization. Being the US Secretary of State and organizing a church bake sale are examples of governance.
- Politics — Politics describes what people do to agglomerate power and influence to themselves, and then use that power to achieve some purpose.
- Policy — Policy is the underlying notion of what ought to be done. Policy is strictly ideas.
When you think about these four distinct ideas, you start to recognize why so much effort goes into making Washington (and the 50 state capitals) run, and so little good comes from them.
When you think of a senator or member of Congress (or a member of your state legislature), you should think of them as politicians. They are primarily concerned with, and spend most of their time, agglomerating power to themselves. Perhaps they first ran for office with a hope of doing public service. But “You can’t do the people’s business unless you win the office.” Fundraising for election campaigns is politicians’ job one, and most members of Congress spend more time doing that than anything else. The priority for fundraising is so extreme that a group called Issue One has a live streaming webpage that keeps (estimated) track of how many hours our present Congress has spent asking for money “instead of doing their jobs.” When I clicked it, the counter was over a million hours. And that is a tally that started with the current members when they took office in January of 2015. To put that in perspective, 2 years * 365 days a year * 24 hours a day = 17,520 hours. To accumulate over a million hours the 535 members must have spent, on average, 1,869 hours campaigning during the last 2 years. That is very nearly half of their total working time. That’s Politics.
Once elected, politicians angle and vie for prestigious committee assignments and for opulent office space. (There are 3 buildings for senators’ offices and 3 for house members’ offices, and the widely recognized worst assignment is at the far end of the back corridor of the top floor of the oldest building: Room 437 of the Cannon House Office Building.
So, we need to make a distinction between politics and those other things. They aren’t the same. They aren’t even compatible. True, politicians find time to do some governance when they aren’t fundraising. The rate of absenteeism in the US Senate and House of Representatives is far higher than you could get away with at your job, but most of them do show up to push a button and cast a vote most of the time. But don’t expect them to find time for public service. If they meant to do public service, they wouldn’t be in politics.
Does it seem as if I want you to think of politics as strictly and purely and altogether bad? Good. That is my intention. It is possible that a person involved in Politics might also perform Public Service, and it is possible for Governance to achieve Public Service. But Politics, as I define it, simply cannot and never will serve the public interest. You might want to use a different words. But you must remember that the politicking/campaigning/agglomerating is a vast enterprise that is opposed to public service.
Governance can be good or bad. To be good, it needs to be virtuous and effective. A good idea or policy that doesn’t get done doesn’t help anyone. A bad idea that does get done is even worse. The only thing that helps is when a good idea is put into practice. That is good governance. And that can be done at any level from a church committee up to the United Nations.
I have a video about Germany before World War II. This was in 1938 or so. The extermination phase of the Holocaust hadn’t started yet but the Germans were working to expel Jews from Germany. The thing was, German law at that time was very strict about issuing exit visas. A Jewish family could spend weeks or months — and hours of official time — petitioning for the necessary paperwork before leaving. And then some German bureaucrat got the idea: They want to leave, and Hitler wants them gone. Why don’t we make this process easier?
After some changes to the procedure, the pace at which Jews could leave Germany and go to Israel or America or somewhere safer picked up. Without making any judgments about the motivations of the bureaucrat, his suggestion undoubtedly saved thousands of lives: far, far more than Oscar Schindler saved.
So there’s an example of how governance can help. A counter example would be that of former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, shown here getting praise from former President George W. Bush:
There’s more you should know about Brown:
On September 12, 2005, in the wake of what was widely believed to be incompetent handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by state, local and federal officials, Brown resigned, saying that it was “in the best interest of the agency and best interest of the president.” Overall, at least 1,245 people had died in the hurricane and subsequent floods. His standing had also been damaged when the Boston Herald revealed his meager experience in disaster management before joining FEMA.
By the time he resigned from FEMA, Brown had already been discharged from his functions as coordinator of the federal efforts in New Orleans and Gulf Coast by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and was sent back to Washington to continue FEMA’s central operations. At the Mobile (Alabama) Regional Airport on September 2, 2005, President Bush, who had appointed Brown in 2003, praised him shortly after the storm hit, saying infamously “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but later deflected questions about the resignation, except to deny having discussed the resignation with him.
Brown demonstrates a case of Governance that is the opposite of Public Service. And 1,245 people died. (OK, be fair, datasaur. Brown didn’t kill those people, nor did Bush kill them. The hurricane and flooding killed most of them and the rest died from the chaos or deprivation and disorder that followed.) Governance can fail to achieve Public Service for a number of reasons. Brown was incompetent. FEMA wasn’t a high priority for President Bush. And Hurricane Katrina was an immense, overwhelming challenge.
Now let’s turn to the problem with Public Service itself. In the majority of cases where public service is intended, the beneficiary is not the general public at all, but the donor’s own immediate circle of family, friends, associates and neighbors. Look at this detailed chart of where US charitable giving went last year:
The top category is religious organizations — people giving to their own church. The second is schools — people giving to their own alma mater or the school their kids attend now. Together, those two categories amount to 49% of all giving.
What’s wrong with giving to organizations and causes we care about, you ask? Nothing. I wouldn’t presume to criticize, but Jesus did:
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43-48
There’s nothing wrong with giving (or volunteering) to groups you care about. But, as the Bible verses show, its not sufficient. It still doesn’t accomplish that elusive goal of Public Service.
My purpose here has not been to suggest that nobody does Public Service. Certainly there are many generous people who do. But I think it helps to realize how many other activities there are that masquerade as Public Service, and how many people we credit with high and noble works who are really just in it for themselves.