A theme in “high-quality” television is the cowardice of politicians. They are always running scared, or at best trying to decide whose lap-dog they should be — the real power is always elsewhere. This is perhaps clearest in Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire, but the basic dynamic is there in West Wing as well, where the president of the world’s mightiest power must constantly “manage” the unruly press (as well as the military brass). On the news as well, we constantly learn of complex calculations as senators worry how their constituents will respond to their decision to vote for cloture on this appropriations bill, etc. While there is obviously a certain degree of window-dressing going on there, I think the underlying paranoia is probably authentic in most cases.
Whence this fear, this paradoxical powerlessness? I believe it stems from the fact that a political office is something you can lose and indeed the default trajectory is precisely for you to lose it automatically (the term will expire, etc.). If the basis of your power is political office, then your attitude toward power will be focused on keeping it rather than using it. In this context, corruption would be something like a hedge, abusing your current power to set aside a nest egg for when you eventually lose it — and perhaps actually implementing policies could be placed on the same basic spectrum as corruption, insofar as policies serve to placate some constituency so that they will not punish the officeholder by taking away his or her power.
The official politician does not exist to exercise power, but to represent and manage a particular balance of power. Once we realize this, certain puzzles dissolve. For instance, during the early days of the Obama administration, I wondered why they didn’t simply nationalize the “too big to fail” banks — it would of course piss them off, but in a way that would completely remove them as a political factor. But that’s not the kind of thing that politicians do. Similarly, why don’t politicians implement the many awesome ideas from the public policy fan-fiction (i.e., “wonk”) circles? That’s because politics is not about ideas, but about power!
Thus, to achieve political goals, I propose that the only effective means is to become powerful — not to put the “right people” in office (since they will inevitably be pulled in by the immutable laws of office-holding), nor to come up with convincing ideas. No politician is going to stand on principle and completely change the existing relations of power — if they tried, they would be removed. The key is to be one of the groups the politicians are afraid of.