Archive for June 12th, 2008

Power and Politics

Wednesday evening at 5:00 I had the privilege of appearing on “The Blog Bunker,” on Sirius radio Indie talk 110. It was hosted by Joe Salzone, who made the interview seem like a relaxed conversation and whose political insights at age 24 suggest to me that this guy may rise high in the world of political punditry in the years to come. However, the first question threw me back: “What is your reaction to Jim Johnson’s resignation?” Yikes. I’m live on satellite radio, and I don’t know who he’s asking me about. What a start!

Finally I said “I have no reaction,” explaining that I had been away from the news all day (which was true: I had prepared an Italian feast of bruschetta, spaghetti carbonara, and eggplant parmesan for some friends, and we spent three hours eating it this afternoon). He then told me it was the Obama VP vetter with questionable ties, and asked how Obama can claim to have a ‘new politics’ when the people around him seem no different than those around any campaign. My answer was a bit cynical: no President can come in and suddenly change Washington, the system itself has a kind of entrenched corruption of secret ties and connections. After talking about Iraq for some time we ended discussing the importance of new media like the internet, blogs, satellite radio, etc. As I drove home I wondered: might the new media be a force to change politics?

Lloyd Etheredge has a theory of American foreign policy decision making that is focused on how our socialization towards government creates an environment where those who crave power are drawn to government service. He calls these people “hardball politicians,” and they have a number of attributes: 1) they are extremely and obsessively ambitious; 2) they demonstrate ‘deficiencies in love,’ meaning that while they value loyalty, they tend to use others for their own ends and try to manipulate other people; 3) they have defective humor, enjoying ridicule of others, but not liking to be made fun of themselves; 4) they have weak ethics and disconnected morals, meaning they try to appear virtuous while behaving in ways opposite of their stated values; 5) they view others as being like themselves, they see the world as populated by hard ball politicians; 6) they are obsessed with power; and 7) they tend to be hyperactive. After all, if deep down you don’t really think well of yourself, times of inactivity will be painful, as one reflects on who one is. Instead they try to fill that internal void with external activity, including the exercise of power and enjoying support or adoration from others.

This is, of course, a deeply cynical social psychological theory. Because government is seen as the most powerful force in society, people with self-esteem problems are drawn to it, and they act to try to bolster their own sense of self-worth, focused on power and control rather than really serving the public. Moreover, since you can never satisfy from without an emptiness within, they continue on this course, insatiable in their lust for power. Etheredge doesn’t say everyone is like this, or that every hardball politician has all of the above traits. Rather, Washington DC draws a disproportionate number of them, and that has an influence on politics. We tend to see little real learning or reflection on goals; learning is tactical, focused on power, and ethical reflections are secondary.

If I hadn’t worked for a few years in the Senate in Washington, I’d probably think Etheredge is far too cynical, and his theory not well supported. But I did work there, and learned a lot from that experience. “Inside the beltway” power games dominate, if you don’t devote your life — sixty hour weeks was the norm, family came second — to the political game, then you’ll never climb up the ladder. Stories of scandals, observations of misbehavior, and watching young, beautiful women — power groupies — fawn over aging Senators and Congressmen struck me as just plan weird. I finally had to quit. I left a well paying high prestige job in DC to become a night manager at a Rocky Rococo Pizza place in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. My dad was horrified at my negative career trajectory — after all, how do you explain to your friends that your 25 year old son no longer is in the middle of the political scene working for a Senator in Washington, but now running night shifts at a pizza place?

Now, as we watch the candidates scramble for office, consider the economic crisis that’s emerged (with roots in decades of economic irresponsibility) and ponder things like the fall of Eliot Spitzer — he seems a classic case of a hardball politician — I wonder if perhaps Etheredge not only can explain foreign policy with his theory, but a fundamental flaw in modern politics. In The Republic Plato argues that we should keep from power those who really want power. Our system requires that people want power badly in order to be willing to do all that is necessary to come out on top. And once in power, they want to keep and expand their own power, which of course meaning expansion of governmental power. They rationalize it with ideologies, promising to give the people what they want, and appeal to nationalism and patriotism. So we end up with a disastrous war in Iraq, government bureaucracy growing out of control, and laws increasingly stifling our ability to make our own choices.

Moreover, given the consumer oriented election process, whereby candidates are marketed, and more emphasis is placed on what a candidate’s preacher says than the actual debate, all is sensationalism and emotion. I don’t think democracy works, we don’t have the politicians under our control, we’re manipulated like consumers. Some of us can get really well informed, but most of us simply don’t have time for the effort. So where am I going with this rant? I don’t know. I don’t have a solution. Etheredge ultimately argues that the press and universities are the key to trying to turn around the social structure that leads to the hardball politicians being the ones who grab power. Yet the press is as sensationalist as ever, and while I want to believe that teaching and academic research does make a difference, I’m not sure if the academic world really sees the problem. And, to be sure, I think local and state politics are less corrupted by all of this, there isn’t so much power centralized at that level, and people have access to the both elected and non-elected officials. The problem seems to be one of concentrated power and distance between the government and the governed. Unfortunately, that’s only getting worse.

One possible alternative is the new media — new forms of art, blogs, fragmented interaction and virtual communities. Perhaps in this we see something to break us away from the old consumerism of mass marketing and mass society. I mentioned on the show that I thought this new media revolution would ultimately be seen as historically significant as the rise of the printing press. For better or worse, it will change politics.