What is politics and why do so many people think that it matters?
After all, if I make a list of things that make life worth living, politics is not on it.
It can be a very long list, with love, marriage, music, literature on it. It could include winter, red maples, crisp apples and oak floors. Neon signs. Travel. Work, and the sense that you are creating something worthwhile.
Louis Armstrong playing “Potato Head Blues.”
Even beer, Letterman and The New York Times crossword puzzle. I could make a list of a hundred items, even 200, but politics doesn’t even make the cut.
That is because politics is a means to an end and not an end itself.
But tell that to Ted Cruz on one hand, or on the other, any committed member of the Communist Workers Party.
These are people who do to politics what the miser does to money.
After all, money has no value whatsoever. It is paper, metal and plastic. You can’t eat money, you can’t wear it, you can’t sleep in it. I suppose if you taped enough bills together, you could wrap fish.
Money is only worthwhile because it can be traded to gullible people for some things that are worth having, like food, clothing, shelter or cable TV.
But all around the world, there are people who would rather have money. And there are people who are committed to politics as if it mattered.
But really, politics answers no question worth asking.
By “politics” I mean two different things. On one hand, there is the practical side, which is the interrelationship of people and the friction of their conflicting desires. It is a constantly shifting game board of power, image, manipulation, blackmail and compromise.
Politics on this level is the jostle of competing self-interests. It is why legislation that enters committee looking like a lion always leaves looking like a platypus.
Politicians would have us believe that they work for the public good, but the reality is much messier, the results of their professed altruism much more equivocal.
For the politicians themselves, it is power, money, the fun of trading favors, gaining approval, trouncing opponents that may make life worth living. The politics involved is again only a means to that end.
The other version of politics is much more scary. Practical politics may be sloppy as mud-wrestling, but it is frequently benign. Fanatically held ideas, on the other hand, can be positively malignant.
These are the people who ruined Russia in 1917 and are ruining the Republican Party now. Idealogues are what fueled the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao, what ignited the McCarthy era, what reduced Pol Pot’s Cambodia to human cinders and what threw gasoline on the book piles in Hitler’s Germany.
Ideology always has a human cost. In my 67 years on this planet, the one thing I have come to be certain of: Certainty is the very devil.
Answers aren’t solution
What unites both camps is their interest in answers rather than questions. Questions muddy the waters and make action more difficult. It is much easier to do something when you are convinced you are right.
The irony is that answers always create more problems than they solve.
The interstate highway system was a wonderful transportation solution that contributed to the dissolution of small-town America and the attendant family structure. Civil-rights laws addressed a very real evil — discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin — and have left us with regulations that require us to discriminate on the basis of race, gender and national origin.
So we enter the fray once more and come up with new legislation to fix the mess we made last time. It’s like cutting the grass: There is no end to it.
Meanwhile, we live our lives despite politics. It is true some political systems allow us more freedom to do as we wish, some are more just and equitable, some are more benign. But, in the end, it is how we comport ourselves as individuals that counts, not how we vote en masse.
And it is the things of the inner life that make the top of our list and provide a satisfying reason to live and grow. You must look deeper than the politics to find the humanity.