Systems are cowards

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.

11 thoughts on “Systems are cowards

  1. 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!

    Yeah, this seems to me to be the mother of a million analytical errors made even by very high information voters. The assumption seems to be that politicians may pander during election year, but then they get their office for another term and can therefore do more or less what they want until the next election year. So if they do something inconsistent with their professed ideology or their prior promises, or they do something dishonest, outraged psychoanalysis ensues. (“Who is Obama, really? What does he really believe?”)

    Things become much simpler, but also much more depressing and boring, when you assume that politicians are in a constant transactional business between a vast constellation of power structures and constituencies, only a handful of which could coalesce and overpower them at any moment.

    I have an informal, bullshit ev-psych hypothesis that we resist this mode of analysis because for hunter gatherers on the veldt, all politics was also personal, so we veer toward people-centric analysis. Complex systems by contrast are either beyond us, or they don’t interest us.

  2. U.S. Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life — the original theory being that guaranteeing a person a secure and more than adequate income for life would remove that person from the political fray and the risk of partisan influence.

    But that assumption was made back in the day when “beyond the dreams of avarice” still had a meaning.

  3. This badly undercuts my heroic fantasies about what I might be able to do were I elected president. Ergo, it must be false. Systems are cowards, but take heart, for I’m nearly certain I’d overcome the system.

  4. You really should look at the recent Kelsey Grammer show Boss if you have not as it sums all of this up so perfectly as to be almost suffocating. I have never seen a series length depiction so thoroughly centered on the obsessive drive for and maintenance of power for its own sake. A superb show but depressing as hell.

  5. Supreme Court justices do still face political pressures — above all the pressure to maintain the prestige and legitimacy of the institution. I don’t know how it would be possible to make public officials immune to political pressure, nor indeed why that would be desirable.

  6. The U.S Constitution was designed by a motley crew of the world’s finest systems engineers — recall that government and cybernetics are cognate notions. All those balances, checks, and corrective feedback loops are designed to prevent the kind of ungovernable power concentrations that have always led to power singularities, the grabitational holes that sink all societies in which they are allowed to get a toehold.

    But now …

  7. One overlooked location of power struggle is within a public service itself, with different government agencies struggling against each other on behalf of those they regulate (for example a particular industry), on behalf of their own general disposition (e.g. natural resource extraction versus environmental protection), and on their own behalf as institutions large enough and old enough to have developed a sense of self-interest. I work in the provincial government of my province (I live in Canada) and, while having heard about this phenomenon in advance, continue to be surprised at the degree to which different government departments and even subdivisions within a department struggle against each other for jurisdiction and to block unfavourable policy developments. Lip-service still gets paid to the idea of “serving the public” but words are starting to align with actions, with “client group” increasingly used to refer to those regulated (and therefore represented) by a particular government agency. Members of cabinet responsible for the departments not only represent the government or legislature more generally (where in the parliamentary system the executive branch is a subset of the legislative), but also their own departments and favoured factions within departments, who actively exert influence up-the-line. It seems the biggest fear among public servants is that things will actually get “political”, that contested matters will boil over and require the arbitration of politicians who might be forced (in order to avoid media coverage and to placate or protect powerful private interests affected by the matter) to settle the matter at the cabinet table above the heads of the departments.

    I tend to maintain that the problem is a lack of political will to impose upon the public service a unified vision from above, as would be proper, but then that assumes that politicians are supposed to exercise power.

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