This is “You Don’t Care About Government, and Maybe You Should”, section 1.1 from the book A Primer on Politics (v. 0.0).
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You might have said this. Some of your classmates have said this. A lot of people say this:
“I don’t care about politics.”
Many Americans have said this for a long time. Why? In a country founded on a great political experiment—in a country where we are sometimes so proud of ourselves that we annoy the heck out of foreigners—many Americans say they don’t like politics, and sometimes appear to have only the dimmest notion of how the country works. Or how politics work at all. (For example, in one recent survey, more than half the people receiving some kind of government assistance did not understand that their assistance came from the government.)
Why don’t we like politics? Talking about politics can help you start a bar fight, and easily turn you into flame-bait on Facebook. An old maxim states that the two things you shouldn’t talk about are politics and religion (because those are good ways to start an argument). And many of us don’t like to argue that much.
But as a professor of mine once said, those are precisely the two things we should talk about: How we live now, and how we might live in the hereafter. In this book, we’re going to talk about how we live now. And how we live now is all about politics, because much of life is politics.
Our job is to cut through all the smoke and mirrors and understand how things are supposed to work and how they do work. Politics is a pretty good story—it’s the history of the world, the news this week, and a window on the future all once. Like a good movie, it’s got heroes and villains, romance and passion, action and adventure—and it’s all true. Together, we can tell that story and know more at the end than we did at the beginning.
What do we mean when we say politicsThe art and practice of government.? The dictionary definition is usually something along the lines of the art and practice of government. Unpack that definition, and you get all the things people do by way of defining, organizing and regulating society, from campaigns and elections to making laws, taxing and spending, regulating behavior and managing the economy. Politics is the art of the possible: How do you get people to agree to do something that you want to do, in a way that they won’t want to hurt you after you’ve achieved your objective?
The 20th century American political scientist Harold Lasswell offered a tighter (and insightful definition): “Who gets what, when, and how.” A similar definition comes from another heavy hitter of that era, political scientist David Easton, who called politics “the authoritative allocation of value.” If you work through this definition, it makes some sense.
“Authoritative” refers to some group of people with authority—the ability to make decisions and do something. Like a coach at a football game, political authority means that someone can call the shots. Things may not always work out as planned, but authority means someone can set a direction. “Allocation” means dividing things up—who gets what. At any given moment, the pie is one size, and “authoritative allocation” means somebody is deciding how it should be sliced. (The size of the pie regularly changes, another place where politics can have a great influence.) Finally, “value” is stuff that we want—food, shelter, money (retirement programs, health care assistance, support for business), public facilities (such as colleges, stadiums and airports), or even space (such as state and national parks and forests). So, as we said before, politics is how we make these kinds of decisions: Who gets what and who’s going to pay for it?
Political scienceThe formal study of politics, and a way of measuring and understanding human behavior in society. is the study of politics (which is actually more interesting than it sounds, although the kinds of things that get political scientists excited might not make most people run for the video camera). It is a social science as it involves the study of people and how they behave, and therefore in the same family as psychology, sociology, history, anthropology and economics (apologies to anyone I’ve left out). Because it deals with real people, we have to observe people, ask them questions and collect data on what really happens, as opposed to doing live experiments on folks. For our purposes, political science will help us study how government works (and when it doesn’t), so that we understand politics better.
And we should want to understand it better. Politics is all around us, from the purely personal level all the way to the global economy. I used to hear people say, “that’s just politics” to explain why something had happened or why someone got promoted over somebody else. And then, at last, it dawned on me: All life is politics. We are social creatures by nature, not naturally solitary, and what we do and why we do it has much to do with the networks of people we know, the cultural expectations we have of each other, and conditions in which we all live. People also sometimes say, “it’s who you know, not what you know,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. (Successful players in politics at all levels know a lot of people, including the right people.)
But if politics is so important, why don’t people like politics? First, politics is not pretty. This is not dancing with the (fading) stars; this isn’t a beauty contest (although it never hurts a political candidate to be considered good-looking). Politics is often partisan—people take sides, and try to win elections to get into power, and in the process say nasty things about the people running against them. Negative campaigning tends to make people dislike politics,Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, “Going Negative,” http://pcl.stanford.edu/common/docs/research/iyengar/1996/goingneg.html yet it’s an accepted article of campaign faith that you can’t nice your way to victory.
Meanwhile, many recent political candidates are fond of saying things like “The system is broken.” The unstated subtext is that the candidate is the person we need to fix the system, but the message that may be getting through to voters is that government doesn’t work, so why bother? It’s no more broken then it ever was, and largely works like always has. Only the arguments have changed. As Pete Townsend said in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” (the greatest rock’n’roll song ever written about politics), “The party on the left, is now the party on the right, and the beards have all grown longer overnight.” (Really, nothing much changes in terms of human nature and how we attempt to make things work in society.) But telling people that it’s broken has the counterintuitive effect of making them not care. People feel powerless in the face of problems they don’t feel they can fix.
Politics, because it’s often about conflict, is messy. As the 19th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe once said, people who like laws and sausages shouldn’t watch either being made.The actual quote is “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The quote is often mis-attributed to the 19th century German political leader Otto von Bismarck. But that thought in itself gives us a reason to get over the less-pleasant parts of politics and focus on what matters: If how we live is determined, in part, by the laws of the country where we live, then it doesn’t matter what happened on the way to those laws. For example, when I worked in a state Legislature, back in the day, I was amazed at the people who were there. And I mean the legislators. They were not all very nice, or very smart, and a lot of them had no taste in clothes (seriously). But eventually, it dawned on me that a law is a good law or a bad law irrespective of the personalities of the people who passed it. What really matters for most of us is how does the law work? And we should care about that, because those laws say something about how fast you can drive, what taxes will be, or what kinds of mind-altering substances it is legal to use.
One more reason why people don’t like politics could be the parties and politicians themselves. In the United States, neither Republicans nor Democrats, conservatives nor liberals do a very good job of explaining what is that they believe. Part of that is because we seem to be living through an era of negative campaigning—parties and candidates spend more time attacking each other than they do explaining what they believe. And when they do explain, it’s not always very clear. Neither side, to my mind, builds a very good case for one approach to government or another, and both sides have some logic behind their positions. I’m not always sure that candidates of any stripe have a clear understanding of why they believe what they say they believe, and as a consequence, they don’t do a very good job of explaining it to you, the voter and citizen whose job it is to decide if that’s the way the country should go. Meanwhile, as we’ve already noted, negative campaigning tends to turn people off when it comes to politics, so that doesn’t help.
Which brings us to another reason people don’t like politics. People—and some younger people—sometimes say they don’t like politics because it doesn’t affect them. An ordinary person is quite busy with her or his life—working a job, going to school, taking care of family members, trying to have a little fun now and then. So it’s easy to lose sight of why your local city council, the state Legislature, or even Congress should matter. Unfortunately, perhaps, in the United States, this has gotten to the point where many people don’t seem to grasp how it all works (and, as we’ll see, American government in particular can be a bit complicated).
Odds are, as you go through life, you’re going to care more about politics. People do tend to care more about politics as they get older. In the United States, voter turnout is higher among older groups and lowest for the youngest voters. In Norway, for example, there’s a senior citizens party. Senior citizens share many things in common, but one of them is they won’t live forever. You might think, then, that the party would go the way of the dinosaur and eventually fade from view. But as people get older there, their viewpoints about what matters change, and the senior citizens party gets new members to replace the old ones.
Figure 1.1 ART TO COME
Who votes, demographically, over time: Voting by demographic group in even-numbered years in the U.S.
Why would it be that people care more about politics as they get older? (And voting statistics show us that they do.) When you finish college and get a job, suddenly laws about behavior in the workplace and taxes are suddenly much more important. If you move away from home, and especially when you buy a house, you have more of a stake in your neighborhood and community, if only because your house value depends in part on what shape the neighborhood’s in. And you’re paying property taxes directly now, and maybe you have kids of your own, and suddenly the local school district and its governance is more important to you than when you were a student there yourself. So, as we say in politics, where you stand depends upon where you sit. And when it’s your chair, that changes something about where you stand on politics and government in general.
But take it as an article of faith that, whatever your age, government affects you in a lot of ways (and I mean all of you). Even if you’re still living with your parents and not even old enough to vote, politics affects your life in many ways, from rules for younger drivers to requirements for standardized testing in high school. Every decision such as those is made in government, which means it was decided in a political process that involved people from all over the nation.
Politics decides if we go to war, and whether you’ll be sent overseas to fight. Politics decides how high taxes are, and what programs get funded, and whether one drug is legal but another is not. Politics is how we sort through what you want and what I want. Politics is how we divide up the pie, and change its size and shape. Politics is how much public college tuition costs and how much that tuition is subsidized by the state.
Take that one example: Across the country, most public colleges are state-run institutions. (You’re at a private college? Financial aid is often financed by federal and state governments. Student loan rates can be determined by Congress.) They have boards of trustees or regents who oversee the operation, and those trustees often are appointed by governors and legislators. State legislatures often decide how much tuition can be raised, and usually decide how much state tax money will go to support higher education. And governors and state legislatures will also set tax rates to determine how much money states will have available. Those governors and state legislators all are elected by citizens. And many of those citizens may be more concerned about issues that affect their legislative districts than they are about the state as a whole. And all of that happens in the middle of a lot of competing interests—business groups, public employee unions, health care professionals, economic development advocates, transportation interests (which includes the people who build, maintain and manage the roads you travel on to get to school or work), social service providers, park and outdoor recreation users, and K-12 teachers, and people with kids. Every year, people with an interest in all of those areas push legislators to spend more on them, which may mean less spent on something else.
Politics—the push and pull, the negotiations, the arguments—are how we decide who gets what. And who gets what has an effect on every person in this country, whether they know it or not.
People also say, “Government doesn’t do anything for me” (students regularly tell me they hear this from their parents). And yet government organizes and pays for roads, bridges, airports, seaports, mass transit, schools, public hospitals, health care, retirement programs, police and fire services, parks, economic development, and national defense, among a lot of other things. Some people argue that many things on that list shouldn’t be part of government. Whatever you think about that, the fact of the matter is that government does do a lot of things, and how those things are done is a matter of politics. If nothing else, who gets elected will change the nature and operation of government services and that will affect you.