February 21, 2014 11:25:27 AM
"I hate government" is an oft-repeated refrain. We hear it more and more as Washington becomes ever more dysfunctional. It is sad to hear because I really don't believe it's government people hate, it's the politicians who are the source of the unrequited anger and frustration. When I voice that counter proposal, the next statement is, "it's the same thing," but I would submit that they are different, inextricably tied together but distinguishable.
Government is the foundation. It is skeletal structure; the heart, the soul and the vital organs of our mostly comfortable existence. Without it we would live unmanaged, chaotic lives. It facilitates our way of life and maintains our civilization. Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as having said, "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried." And while that faint praise is exalting, it speaks to the side of human nature that wants to be unfettered. It allows us to choose our chains that bind and rules that govern. That choice is our social contract through which we make our daily lives the most they can be.
Our government is the grandest social experiment ever devised and has survived for as long as it has because as a collective people we Americans believe in it. We believe the process should be open and we chafe and rail against those who attempt to close it to our scrutiny and involvement. We understand the foibles of human nature, but still we believe that our government will survive in the end. The bad guys will get punished and all things will right themselves. We may dislike decisions made, but if those decisions provide credible information and some small degree of explanation then we are satisfied that our elected representatives have at least made the effort to fulfill their obligations to us.
Webster gives the first definition of politics as "the art or science of government." One of the other definitions is "political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices." When does what is art or science cross the line making it political in the worst sense of the definition? My answer is simplistic, but sometimes the simple answers are the best. That line is crossed the minute an elected official makes a decision based on something other than furthering an equitable government goal or process.
What we despise about politics enters through the door of rationalization. The rationalization is about the good deeds that can get done if only I get elected or reelected. It follows the path of Machiavelli in believing that the good you will do outweighs what you did to get there. The slope is steep and the path is well worn and traveled by many. Once you have passed that way it is very difficult to go back to the honorable process of governing.
It most frequently starts with a simple vote swap. The quid pro quo of the swap is the first sale in the business of politics. It is a tempting game to enter and is appealing to those who love to build empires and control destinies. The solution, again following the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, is to vote just as you believe you should, period, the end. I used to debate with a former alderman and friend about what to do about this or that with the final answer from my side of the discussion being, "you didn't get elected to get re-elected, you got elected to do what you believe is right." It lacks all the intrigue that comes with bringing home the "pork" to your district. You may not be there next term because you didn't play ball with the powers that be, but does that really matter? That is a personal question only answered by the individual.
I have been on the elected side and other than arguing the merits of any particular position that I believed in, I did not ever do a deal or swap a vote. If you do your obligatory due diligence, provide rational explanations on your vote and vote your conscience then you have met your obligation to yourself and to your constituency. As long as you don't govern with your eye on the prize of the next election, you will have little trouble making the call. Being an elected official is heady stuff. Even in a small-town environment, it becomes an addictive role to play and addictions are hard to break.
I believe governing and government is a higher calling, that politics is the yang to the yin for public service. The way to bring honor back to politics is to act honorably and leave the temptations of wheeling and dealing to the private sector.
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