why dog eat dog politics is a really bad thing

October 18, 2010

Famous atheist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens, managed to find just enough time between chemotherapy and his grueling schedule of debates and public appearances to write a column about why it seems that today’s politicians can’t seem to actually run the U.S. with any degree of competence, being a lot more interested in muckraking and campaigning than actually implementing ideas. His answer has been on the lips of quite a few political scientists and pundits so there’s really nothing shocking about it. But what’s really disconcerting about his column is how well these concerns are known, how often they’ve been raised in books, magazines, and think tank literature, and yet how they’re still waiting to be addressed. Here’s the quick summary: the process is basically broken, rewarding tabloid journalism, mudslinging, and partisan appeals over clear cut accomplishments, and dooming the elected to spend their terms looking for more money.

banker eat banker

With the byzantine rules of any bureaucracy, especially an organization that primarily exists to create, process and review paperwork, it’s hard to get big things done. Earmarks have to be doled out to get others on board, hands need to be greased to ensure that the vote passes with as few objections as possible, the greasing in question taking the form of riders and addendums which tack on potentially unrelated pet projects, spending line items, and sub-programs into a single bill. That’s how seemingly simple sounding laws swiftly balloon to hundreds, if not thousands of pages. And even then, after the bill has finally been debated to death, revised in countless committee meetings, where it had to be watered down and bloated to make enough people happy, voted on, and passed, the burden of implementation now falls on agencies or courts which may not be ready to implement the bill’s provisions. Meanwhile, the lawmakers are on to another bill while their little legislative progeny is often being slowly unrolled with little to no supervision. This is why technocrats who get involved in the implementation and oversight of their project can do what the lawyers and diplomats rarely can and how so many seemingly good laws end up as such mediocre to alarmingly subpar programs.

Another major obstacle to getting things done is the shelf life of the average politician. Imagine a hypothetical, average politician we’ll call Jane Lawmaker. After navigating months and months of media obsessions with a prime time news story about everything she ever said or did, prying into her personal finances, putting up with nasty slander composed primarily of half-baked accusatory fallacies from her opponent, then dishing out her version of the exact same thing, doing her best to appease the party organizers and the rabid ideologues who desperately want to dictate her party’s dogma, she finally got elected. Good for her. Now where is she going to get the roughly $2 million she needs to secure another victory? Better start making time for luncheons, social events to schmoose with donors, and organize fundraisers while coordinating with party bigwigs. There’s no time to waste because the attack ads start in roughly 16 to 18 months, depending on just how competitive her district is seen by pollsters and how much mud her opponents can dig up on her in the meanwhile. If you tell me what someone for whom fundraising and granting donor requests in the form of pork barrels, earmarks, and riders is job one can honestly sit down and focus on long-term accomplishments, forgive me if I express some skepticism. And besides, how many major agendas can someone push through in two years?

This is where Hitchens comes in with his main argument. Anyone who actually wants to do this job, endure a media crap storm over every single word and every single picture ever taken of him or her, and come another election decides to do it again, is inherently too insane for the post and will by default be unable to affect any major changes on a national scale. And I would partially agree with Hitchens here. I say partially, because we all know that under duress, the government can get things done and get them done quickly. But usually, most of the stimuli and legal edicts tend to lack the necessary follow through on implementation, and only makes it back into the spotlight when something goes very wrong and someone absolutely has to fix it. And the fix is all too often just another bill which is again sent off for implementation with little oversight. So our politicians, the ones that don’t dominate the headlines for saying crazy or ridiculous things on a daily basis, but the ones who make it into office after verbally slathering each other in muck and ad hominems, and with their two, four, or a somewhat more generous six year with biannual upheaval, shelf life, try to navigate the current system we’ve allowed to flourish on Capitol Hill, are just doing the best they can. The real problem is that this system rarely does much more than move paperwork and produce political theater rather than real changes.

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  • Julien

    Season 3 of The Wire does an amazing job at illustrating these issues.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … it seems that today’s politicians can’t seem to actually run the U.S. with any degree of competence…

    It all depends on your definition of the purpose of the federal government.

    If you view its prime function as securing global assets for US corporations by military force and transferring wealth from all other sectors of society to the financial elite(s), it’s been a roaring success for 30 years, with particularly noteworthy peaks in ’83, ’89, ’93, ’01, & ’08-’09.

    I don’t watch tv, but today a friend told me about some of the current attack ads concerning the Florida governorship. One in particular, purportedly independent of the criminal corporado who bought the Repub nomination, features unflattering pictures of the Dem candidate with a sneering voice asking accusing slanted question, interspersed with a nasal rendition of the Dem’s voice repeating her praise of Obama – the same clip “over and over, about ten times … until you come to hate her just from having this nasty attack shoved in your face.”

    [Insert Weimar allusion here]

  • Paul

    I’ve wondered occasionally why there aren’t more “front” candidates. I don’t mean de facto, but de jure.

    Someone with a capability and interest in politics, but a hatred of the election process, hiring someone to be the “face” of their campaign. Instead of the spin doctors managing the candidate, the spin doctor is the candidate, on a commercial contract to the actual power.

    Or going further, a powerful group openly (publicly) hiring multiple candidates to represent them, as a faction within a major party. It might be a way of delivering a kind of benevolent dictatorship without the risk of a real one (you can change your mind if you get it wrong.)

    Of course, plenty of puppet candidates have been groomed and controlled by king-makers (and the Tea Party is an example), but those candidates are being sold the illusion that they are in control, they are “being chosen” because of their amazing leadership qualities and life experience, or whatever fiction keeps them in line. But I don’t mean that. I mean someone who knows they are just the face & fund-raiser, that’s their job.

    (…Like a lot of ideas I have, I wouldn’t support any system that really did this. Even if I like the idea, I would never trust anyone who actually tried to introduce it. I’m just surprised the US political system hasn’t evolved that way.)

  • Greg Fish

    “If you view [the government’s] prime function as securing global assets for US corporations by military force…”

    Ah yes, we’re beating the war drum yet again…

    Actually, if the government’s prime function was to secure assets for companies by bombs and ground troops, the U.S. has been doing a very, very poor job. From Iraq to Afghanistan, the oil and minerals are still in the ground and all the energy companies desperate to get their hands on them have so far only been in fruitless, pountless talks that stretch for years and yiled them no results.

    The actual aquisitions in fossil fuels come through deals with Russia, China, Brazil, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, none of which are afraid of the American military targeting them anytime soon. In fact, Russia can still put up the kind of fight that could start WW3 were the U.S. to start bullying them militarily.

    I know the whole American Empire thing is a popular trope, but the geopolitical reality kind of fails to support this assertion outside soft conspiracy theory books.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Well, to be sure the major redistributionist triumphs of recent administrations have come domestically, where they face no noticeable resistance.

    But only a silly conspiracy person would find any meaning in a major extension of permanent US bases in the Middle East and Central Asia – no doubt anyone bringing this up in the Kremlin or the Forbidden City is promptly sent to bed without supper…