In previous posts here, I’ve talked a lot about pragmatism when it comes to politics, as well as understanding the “rules of the game.” If you don’t have either, and lack the willingness to actually do the work involved in getting your agenda into law, you’re not going to get very far. Even if you do understand the rules, and are willing to do the work, it still doesn’t mean you’re going to get your way, or at least, everything you wanted. You see, it turns out that real politics are never quite as simple as they may seem when talking about abstract philosophical concepts.
One of the older quotes about politics is “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” This is sometimes rephrased as “those who love the law and sausages should never watch either one being made.” The reason that statement resonates is that both processes are rather messy. It’s unavoidable whenever you have to account for any group’s priorities and interests. The larger the group, the more likely there are going to be conflicts.
I grew up in a large family, so in many ways I’ve had a lifetime experience with “politics.” Arguments over the allocation of resources, arguments over who is “in favor” or not, trading favors, bargaining, or forming alliances were part of daily life. Yes, on a micro scale, but the lessons apply to the large scale as well.
I also live in New York State. The area I live in has very little in common with New York City. We’re different geographically, and demographically we’re radically different. This area has more in common with Maine than it does with the city. The things that are very important here aren’t often even on the radar in NYC, and the things that are “absolutely critical” to NYC may have no applicability to here. Yet, we’re part of the same state, which means that decisions have to be made and resources allocated to both. It means compromises, that word that purists of all stripes don’t want to hear, have to be made.
Which is why politics are often a messy business. The “rules” – the Constitution, laws, and institutional procedures – place specific responsibilities and limits. In order to accomplish anything, you need to know what they are, and how they work. It’s one thing to want Guantanamo closed, it’s another to blame the President for not doing it, when the reason is Congress. In other words, screaming at the President for “not doing” something he was blocked from doing just shows that you’re not paying attention.
But even when you get to the right spot, you have to realize that it’s a big country, with a lot of competing interests and needs. Which is why we have the “bargaining” and “compromises” that so infuriate the purists. The idea that just because a member of Congress belongs to a given party that the member will have identical concerns and beliefs to every other member of that party across the country is ridiculous. My Representative is a Democrat, but the district he represents has different concerns and interests from San Francisco. He doesn’t have to listen to what purists in California or New York City may or may not want him to do. He doesn’t represent them, and they don’t vote here. If what they want is at odds with what his district wants, he is either going to be at odds with them, or if he goes along with them, at odds with his district.
Which is where the “horse trading” begins. You want something, I don’t want it. How do you get me to go along with you? You bargain. You see what I will accept. It might mean looking at a different wording. You might decide to drop the parts I find particularly bad, even if you want them. You see what I want, that you may not want. We may after some discussion, decide that I’ll support yours if you support mine. If I’m on a committee and you’re not, I might agree to help get something you want through the committee, or you may return the favor. Multiply that by the number of members of Congress, and you have the “sausage factory.”
Is it “nice,” or particularly “pure?” No. It’s messy as hell. It means that bills come out of Congress on a regular basis that have something that is not wanted by some group or another, that may offend various purists. It means that the “ideal” that was promulgated at the start bears just a passing resemblance to the final product. But what it is is a set of compromises and deals that are acceptable enough to be passed when the ideal couldn’t.
So how do you change that? Frankly, you can’t change it totally. It’s always going to be “messy.” That’s simply the nature of competing constituencies and local/regional needs. But you can get less messy. How do you do that? You have to get your hands dirty doing the work. First, you have to vote. Regularly, and in every election. If there’s something in your area that is up for a vote, you should be in line at the voting booth. Why? Because politicians pay attention to people who vote. They don’t pay much attention to people who don’t vote or aren’t reliable.
Second, you need to know the rules. I’ve lost track of how many “action alerts” I’ve gotten from various groups over the years telling me to call various members of the House or Senate. Do you want to know how effective that is? Not very. Seriously. You call your Representative or Senators. You can, if your Representative or Senator isn’t on the appropriate committee, also call the Chair or the ranking member, if your party is not in charge. My member of the House will listen to me. He doesn’t have to listen – and probably won’t – to someone from outside the district. The same holds true of my Senators. My calling Senator Feinstein is a waste of my time and her staff’s. At the same time, you need to know not just that,but where and when to call. Screaming at your Senators about a bill in a House committee is not effective. It is if it’s in the Senate.
Finally, you have to be active locally. Remember that bit about calling your representatives? Multiply that by the 435 districts in the House, and the 50 states. It doesn’t matter how big you are in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago or Boston. Great, you have thousands of people there. If there’s no one, or just a few, in the districts and states outside of there, you aren’t going to be very persuasive, beyond the people representing your areas. It also means you have to be active in your local party. If your representative is not representing you in a way you feel is adequate, then it is incumbent on you to find a candidate to replace them. If you’re not active locally, and in your local party, you’re not going to do it.
Do all that, and you’ll get closer to what you want. But you know what? It’s still going to be messy. Compromise is not a bad word, and if you’re willing to get your hands dirty doing the work, you’ll find that out. You’ll also get a lot more of what you want. But if all you’re going to do is sit on the Internet and gripe, and stay home when it comes time to vote, then you have no cause to complain that things aren’t the way you want them. Because the rest of us are not your parents, and we’re not going to give you what you want just because you throw tantrums. You’ll have to earn it.