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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

07 September 2005

The apolitical being

As I begin to study for an advanced degree in international affairs, I know that I will be increasingly annoyed by the superficial discussion of grave political issues, either in the media or among friends who don’t share my passion for politics. In the past this has troubled me greatly; but over time, I have come to see this as a blessing. Let me explain why.

It was Aristotle who said that humans were, by nature, political beings. It is true that humans yearn for social interaction and that interaction will be inevitably political. But I also think Aristotle was wrong—politics is a necessary evil, more so than an organic expression of an innate human characteristic. Surely, not so for people who enter politics in their quest for power; rather, it is true for most people, who treat politics as a medium for improving things. For them, political participation is inversely related to how effectively a political unit is being run.

Think of the motto, “All politics is local.” More than anything else, this cliché encapsulates the basic reality of politics—that people enter politics to change things that affect them. It is poverty in the developing world that motivates people to study international development, just as the attacks on September 11 stimulated people’s curiosity about the Middle East. For most, the time to think about politics is when the lights go out, gas prices climb high, taxes are excessive or children can’t read; and historically, people have been involved in politics when governments have given them reason to do so, usually by denying them basic freedoms.

Why is this important? After all, human fallibility will always be mirrored in political imperfection and hence people will continue to be involved in politics whatever their motivation. But recognizing politics as a necessary involvement leads to a different conception of political life. It is easy to forget that democracy arose from practical realities rather than philosophical argument; and that without the practice the philosophy of democracy would wither away in books that need translation to be read, and meticulous study to be understood. Here is Robert Kaplan, drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s wisdom:

“In this ‘Author’s Introduction’ to Democracy in America, Tocqueville showed how democracy evolved in the West not through the kind of moral fiat that we are trying to impose throughout the world but as an organic outgrowth of development. European society had reached a level of complexity and sophistication at which the aristocracy, so as not to overburden itself, had to confer a measure of equality among its citizens and allocate some responsibility to them: a structured division of the population into peacefully competing interest groups was necessary if both tyranny and anarchy were to be averted.”

What I am getting at here? To begin with, political apathy is not the devil incarnate that political junkies make it out to be, as it often reflects on the marginal importance of politics; where it does, it is most welcome. But the broader message is that the guarantors of political freedom are neither education nor awareness—it is interests. Interests give people the incentive to protect themselves—and interests can give people the means to check government power.

This is a sobering message that runs counter to the instinctive idealism that pervades people who, like me, are seeking to extend their political education and better prepare themselves to understand and change the world. But it is a blessing, and evidence of our success, to find ourselves less and less relevant amidst people who want to get on with their lives rather than listen to us, heralds of political news.


Anonymous Peter said...

Okay, this is something I've had on my mind a lot lately too, seeing as how I'm about to enter this field of national politics (if I can break down the door on the ground floor).

Yes, apathy abounds, but that's not the dynamite that blows apart a republic. Apathy can be tolerated for the same reason why Public Policy is a legitimate professional major for an MA student -- because the administration of politics over peoples' lifes is an art, a science, a profession all in itself. It takes certain skills to master it, and while (as in all academic fields) there are severe differences of opinion between two scientists/artists, it makes it no less a job worthy of the scientic and artistic processes. (And it is worth noting that academic disagreements bear so little significance, or strike so little contrast, to the outside mind, that we can compare them to the apathy shown by most people that "both [American] parties are essentially the same". In this way, these fields are Siberesque "tempests in a teapot", though legitimately so.) In short, it takes skill to govern in a just and stable manner.

But there is something else. The nature of public opinion does sway the leadership of a republic, even when elections are nowhere close. Managing public opinion is an essential part of leadership, to make sure disagreements do not turn into fundamental idelogical beams of opposition. Getting through a bad news cycle, and even dismissing a wave of opposition as overblown and staged, all helps to be sure certain issues do not backfire into a solid reason for a lack of trust in an elected official. It's keeping minor qualms and disagreements from bursting into the major "interests" you refer to. How public opinion influences policy is probably tied up in this.

So why does what happens inside the Beltway matter? Well, hell, its only because all of this personality and idiosyncratic crap is what makes the federal government of the nation work. Bush sold himself as an outside the Beltway type, and that was a large part of his appeal in both elections. Yet, of course, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and scores of other top officials in his White House are essentially career Washington men. It takes that knowledge to work a government, that knowledge of American public policy. It is indeed about who you know (which is really who you trust), and while outsiders may sneer at this inside-the-Beltway jazz, they don't mind a functioning government.

Which brings me to a point where a big problem occurs. When apathy melts away into resentment toward Washington, and a feeling of pissed offedness at the whole system in general. These people do indeed care about the government, and would like to see a better one. But they do not vote. They complain, but beyond griping over pints at the bar, they say nothing in public that is constructive. These are the caring but disaffected, and they piss me off in our republic because I'm not sure what to do with them, or who's fault it is that they're trapped between apathy and activism. I'm not sure of the psychological reasons for this, but thought I'd throw it out there.

1:32 AM  

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