Unpopular Opinion: Politics is hard, worthwhile, and respectable (most of the time)
today at 5:41 pm
Peter Breinart in The Atlantic asserts, “Kamala Harris Did What She Had To: In attacking her record on crime policy, her critics are ignoring how politics actually works.”
In Sunday’s New York Times, the reporters Danny Hakim, Stephanie Saul, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. quoted David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who argues that when Harris “had the opportunity to do something about police accountability” as the city’s district attorney, “she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” Criticisms like these, the Times notes, have led progressives to ask: “Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed?”
This is a false dichotomy. The implication is that if politics has influenced Harris’s views on criminal justice, progressives shouldn’t support her for vice president. But that’s naive. Because if politics hadn’t influenced Harris’s views, she probably wouldn’t be in a position to join the Democratic ticket in the first place. Commentators can ignore the way American politics actually works. Black women who want a career in national politics cannot.
Admittedly I haven’t studied Harris’ record in detail, but I’m inclined to agree with this take on politics overall. Politics is hard, and it’s too often broadly dismissed as dirty work. The gaming part of politicking is not an option. Nor is it a vice or a hobby as it is for most armchair analysts. It’s a rare and valuable skill set necessary to get anything done. Survival as a long-term government employee — which is needed to effect wide-reaching, lasting change—is not easy; the playing field is unfair, and the rules absolutely change with the sentiment of the times. As an example, the indecision happening now with the stimulus bill is less a function of individual unethical, cruel politicians and more a result of a dysfunctional two-party system.
It’s even dismissive to refer to any part of government work as “gaming.” In any other industry, the work of an elected official would be regarded fairly as marketing, negotiations, branding, and strategy. Side deals, carrots/sticks, and ambitious promises are part of all major decisions in private business. But in government, these routine tools of negotiation are viewed as virtually criminal. I guarantee far worse is happening in the private sector with our favorite companies, public figures, and celebrities. We just never hear about it. Sure, there are a handful that abuse the government office, and we clutch our pearls when we hear about these scandals from time to time. But they really are the exception. The belief that all politicians are only in it for money or power is a myth. Most government officials (elected or not) are typically competent leaders who would be paid double/more for similar work in the private sector. Instead they dedicate their lives to advance challenging causes, on behalf of others without a voice, that the private sector would otherwise leave behind. The daily struggle of a difficult and often thankless job is rarely acknowledged.
I also think a lot of people greatly overestimate their own ability to navigate a 100% morally straight line within the confines of the political system. A lot of armchair experts would likely be waffling all over the place if held to the same impossible standards. I would, anyway.
Right now I really wish these gargantuan omnibus bills (like the CARES act and this upcoming stimulus) weren’t allowed to be mega-packaged as such. I wish every item were voted on totally separately with each rep/senator having to make a choice on every item. Politicians can still vote en bloc by party, but this way all the side deals are plain and not buried in 300 pages of technical text. Sure, it takes forever, and it is riskier because any member of the voting bloc could go rogue, but it forces transparency and individual accountability. Every party should be afraid one of its members might defect, frankly. Keeps the party leadership on its toes. Party loyalty, like voter favor, should be continually earned and not a given.
But then party loyalty all stems from electability, and that is its own animal. So any aspirations of fixing the system starts with campaign finance reform. How though? Don’t know, but I like the idea no private campaign funding at all. Every politician gets the same small budget that they can use for whatever. It’s scaled so a Presidential candidate gets more funding than a local rep. Maybe some use it for limited state touring, broadcast speeches, town hall Q&A, debates, and a detailed website on positioning and policy proposals. Way less advertising, fewer rallies, no fundraisers. Fewer opportunities for special interests to enslave candidates from the outset.