Why Can We Not Get Politics “Right”?

There is no right; all politics is a strategy, not a process.

Never tell people at a party that you have a PhD. in Political Science, because there is a 99% chance they will ask you why politics has so many problems. “Why can’t we just do what needs to happen?” is a common refrain. Given that most political scientists are in the business to answer questions, if you ask them something so open ended, they will happily explain their research to you, which is likely to be much less interesting to either of you than you might suppose. What almost no one expects is the truth: there is absolutely nothing wrong with “politcs.”

Politics could only be “broken” if there there were a “right” and a “wrong” way to do politics, but politics is a process and strategic interaction at all levels. In many tasks, especially those with a clearly defined objective, it is possible to say there is a right (or at least a better) and a wrong (or worse) way to do things. If you set out from Paris to go to Rome and end up in Moscow, you did it wrong. There is no set objective for politics, and political actors objectives can operate at cross purposes. Consequently, each group maneuvers to meet its objectives, but whether one group or the other acheives its goals is not a measure of success of politcs.

Of course, most people feel that there is an unambiguous right way for politics to work: their way. If you take a few moments to press them on why they believe politics is broken, and you will discover the real complaint is government policy does not sufficiently reflect their policy preferences. If someone suggests that a policy is “common sense” they are implying that there is, in fact, a policy so obviously dominant that only people lacking common sense would oppose it, and…would’t you know it…that policy just so happens to be their preferred policy!1 No reasonable person would ever want to go to Moscow when they could go to Rome!

Of course, people do not always agree with policies governments follow, and consequently there is a strategic interaction. Both sides most likely will claim that their policy is the actual “common sense” policy, and then the jockying for position will begin. Coalitions form and dissolve. Policies get proposed, modified, implemented or abandoned. In nearly every case no one is going to be happy with the end result, which is a feature not a bug of politics. To those who believe there is an obviously right policy, it will be extremely frustrating that the obviously right policy almost assuredly will not hold, but the intellectually honest will eventually realize that sub-optimal outcomes are preferable to an actual political failure.

Politics fails, not when the government fails to implement your prefered policy, but when the shooting starts, at least in the modern system.2 Thomas Hobbes, who had lived through the chaos of the English Civil War described the the importance of government in preventing violence and chaos in Leviathan. Modern political systems have no licit violence, so when violence breaks out, politics has failed. The political system is broken. Threatening or creating violence is a valuable mechanism for producing change in recalcitrant political systems, as French rioters regularly demonstrate.

While in democracy we tend to think only of democratic politics, even authoritarian politics has give and take, leading to compromise outcomes. Stalin and Hitler may have gotten exactly what they wanted, policy-wise, at least some times, but most even dictators negotiate and have a give and take with other people in their political system. The failure of the authoritarian political system would also be non-government violence, and through coups and protests disaffected persons within the state can coerce change, if the leadership is unwilling to change voluntarilly.

While it may seem obnoxious to compromise, especially if you are certain your policy preferences are correct, but the inability to institute your prefered policy is not indicative of a broken system. If the people who oppose you are politically impotent, then perhaps you can afford to write them out of the system, but political systems that do not replicate reasonably accurately the distribution of power within the system are more likely to rupture. Once people’s preferences diverge from policy reality enough, they could well believe they have nothing to gain from the political system. Their cause may or may not be just, too. Once the shooting starts, you really will have a broken political system.

1 Spend enough time with political activists and you will be amazed at how many of them are blessed to only have morons and evil people as enemies.