Thursday, January 28, 2010

Politics As Usual

I feel sorry for Barack Obama.

To a certain extent, I feel sorry for all politicians. Even a little bit for George W. Bush. Why, you may ask? Because politics is the ultimate Mephistopheles deal--promises of having real power, being able to enact significant change. And then one gets into office and that illusion disappears like a puff of smoke, and some little demon is laughing somewhere. Trying to enact changes and get legislation passed is about as easy as going for a long swim in drying cement. On the other hand, someone has to do it--it's one of the inevitabilities of democracy. So, our leaders are more like human sacrifices.

I particularly feel sorry for Obama, because whether you like the man or not, you can't deny that he came into office with the earnestness of youth. He wanted to change things, and he really meant it. He really does want what's best for America. You may or may not agree that he knows what that is, but you're dead wrong if you think he doesn't want it. Some politicians lie to get into office, and then exclusively serve special interests rather than the people. Obama may turn out that way as well, who knows. But the reason I voted for him in the end was that he really did want to make things better, and he might get off to a running start, accomplishing a few things before that cement dried.

People who are disgusted with Obama and the Democrats for not bringing about swift change are people who are naive to the ways of politics. Not totally naive, I am sure, as most of us get the idea that there's a lot of shady dealing involved. And we know that both political parties have their faults--we really do need a balance in Congress, so that the worst traits of both parties can be kept at bay. I always believed I understood politics until I got a political job. By the time I (barely) escaped with my sanity, I realized that it was much more complicated and much worse than I ever could have imagined.

In my case, it was not an elected position, but a highly visible job--I was responsible for a system migration for 37 municipalities. It was a highly controversial appointment--I actually wrote a soap opera about the whole thing at the time, that I don't dare ever publish for fear of being sued. This is laughably small potatoes compared to the Presidency of the United States, but it certainly presents a microcosm of all the forces at work. This is what they are:

1. Public Opinion and Media Spin: These two things go hand in hand. "Media" could be as simple as word of mouth between institutions, or as big as the actual national media. If general public opinion is that you know what you're doing and can get the job done, you will be able to accomplish your work much more smoothly. But never is there 100% agreement on this, and those who believe that you're the wrong person for the job will do everything that can to spin this message to the people, making them doubt your abilities. Some will stick by you, others will be plunged into doubt, especially as factor #3 in this list comes into play.

2. Who You Know: Do you remember being in the sixth grade, and kids you used to play with in your K-5 school suddenly started forming cliques? Do you remember how you would be labeled as part of a group, and if you were part of one group, you couldn't be friends with someone in another group, unless they had something you wanted/needed, in which case you pretended to be nice but stabbed them in the back? When you became an adult, did you think that was finally all over? If so, you've never worked in a political job. Who you are friends with and how much power (i.e., popularity) they have makes all the difference in the world. Your actual ability to do your job does not. In the bipartisan world, a member of either political party could find a cure for cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, and bring back a booming economy, and members of the opposition party would still find a reason to label them incompetent.

This also means that you don't piss off your allies. They can turn on you as well. Hence the reason many "decisive" politicians may be hesitant to act.

3.Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt, or the FUD Factor: This is especially a problem in technical jobs, but it's really a problem everywhere. Things descend into firestorms and chaos because things get chaotic, and people want things to be orderly, and become desperately afraid to hinge their hopes on the person elected to put things in order. As much as they disliked what came before, it was "the devil they knew." So, panic ensues, as every little thing the elected person tries to do is brought under scrutiny. The elected person's opposition will use this opportunity to increase distrust in this person, to such a degree that nothing can get done as everyone becomes filled with doubt about what constitutes right action. Even your allies may start to turn against you, because no matter what you do, it's wrong to somebody.

4. The Past is a Cancelled Check: Most major problems are inherited. That doesn't matter. If you're the person front and center now, you're the target if things are screwed up. Don't bring up bad decisions made by past administrators. Somehow everything is your fault. Your predecessor could be Hitler, and somehow they would find something favorable to say about him compared to you.

5. Every Man (or Woman) for Himself (Herself): No one cares if a change will help the majority of the people. If they think it won't help them personally, then it's bad and must be stopped. If it doesn't fit into their particular worldview, or suit their particular organization, than it shouldn't happen, period.

This, sadly, is politics as usual. None of it may be surprising, but the force with which a vocal minority can take someone down for no rational reason is so absurd we just can't believe it really happens among thinking people. But it really is a bit like we fool people into getting elected so that we can get our rocks and start stoning them in the name of democracy. I'm all for dissenting opinions and debate--that's the cornerstone of good democracy--but more often that not it's just a savage brawl with a cacophony of voices.

I try to think about why this is, but then I stop. Human nature is what it is, and group dynamics can often be frightening. As sleazy as politicians can be, they're really just fighting to stay alive in this arena. As for me, I'm happier being a worker bee and actually accomplishing something--I'm pleased to leave high administration to someone else. Politics rarely leaves one feeling accomplished.

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