Politics. Government. Democracy.

We must keep separate in our minds the concepts of Government, Politics, Democracy, even though they of course intertwine in practice.


Politics is the art of compromise to get groups to cooperate on a common goal.

So, we have office politics, corporate politics, university politics. There is an implication that deals are struck secretly among some players. The main point is that it is a process which may be at times quite noble and at other times despicable. But we cannot live without the process, which we should strive to make ethical and fair as best we can.

Democracy refers to an ideal of politics in which each individual is acknowledged to have equal rights, an equal voice in decision making,and is presumed to put the common welfare above narrow self-interest.  Common welfare in the long run is seen as serving enlightened self interest.   In a word, it is no good owning a Mercedes if you cannot park it unattended without fear of vandalism or theft. Implied is an ideal of civil society where everybody is fair, informed, honest, and willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Further implied is a necessity for institutional safeguards to protect all from the tyranny of the majority (a unified lynch mob is democratic, but certainly not civil).

Government is the institution that deals with and tries to solve the problems of everyday life that an individual cannot tackle alone: security, education, healthy environment. Depending on how developed a country is, these needs and problems can be dealt with effectively at very high levels (psychiatric care, F-18 fighter-bombers, graduate schools, immaculate parks and garbage free streets, pristine drinking water) or not very effectively at even low levels (bribes necessary for police protection, ignorant or even evil teachers, filthy water, and so forth).

The point is that government is a unified set of institutions organized to get good things done and to prevent bad things ideally for all.

Our form of government is a republic, that is, a nation-state governed by a universally suffraged elected executive , which is guided, authorized and legitimated by bodies of legislators, representing areas and populations, both subject to review by judges, most appointed conjunctively by legislature and executive, to make sure they follow the rules (Constitution) of the republic, which embody the ideals of democracy.

Engaging the gears:

Now we have a very big and complex country where nobody can possibly know everybody or everything, so both members of government and members of the public communicate through various media, which tell all the news, which poll the public, which broadcast government decisions  and intra-government discussions and disagreements.

Not one part of this complex machine is without flaws, even corruption. The media are lazy and biased, polls are twisted by their commissioners, campaigns for election and announcements about laws and policies are often spun and run by amoral professionals in the art and science of persuasion and deception.

But somehow we muddle through.

Many see the Internet and digitization as a way to clear out some of the veils and cobwebs between governors and governed.

So in practice we have this political process in our democratic republic:

  • Politicians run for office on various platforms.
  • The winners pass laws based on commissioned studies, polls, special interest lobbies, genuine concern for the common good, special favors for the well-connected.
  •  After a law is passed it must be enforced.
  • This is done through one of the cabinet departments which either has an existing agency for the kind of thing involved or creates a new agency. The new agency may hire new people or may use people from the department. The agency reports to the department on a regular basis and the head of the department (theSecretary of Defense, for instance) reports to the Congress.

Since so much is going on all the time, these reports are given in hearings before specialized committees, such as Commerce or Intelligence Oversight. Each committee has a Chair and an assistant chair, one from each party usually, mirroring the House Speaker/Minority Leader and Senate Majority Leader/Minority Leader partisan dichotomies.

Because we lived in a technological, high-speed country of national special interests and businesses, the Chairs of Committees are the most important people in Congress, and some Committees are more important than others.

Thus, Representatives may come from a particular district in the Bronx or Idaho but they wind up on committees that deal with national, even international interests, like banks, defense contractors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, automobile manufacturers, drug companies, etc., all of which have lobbies, many with bigger staffs and more money than any individual Senator’s or representative’s office or staff. This general arrangement, with minor variations, is duplicated at the state and local level. In this system, a few idealists and a few relatively poor NGO’s, like Common Cause, push for the public interest and the Common Welfare.

The chain of causality is

  • Lobby to Chairs and Committees
  • Chairs and Committees to House and Senate Leadership
  • The House and Senate subsequently draft and present laws for a vote which are modified by various pressures from lobbies,other branches of government, citizens’ and public interest groups. If passed, the laws are entrusted to an agency which is supposed to carry out the law. Often it turns out that the law is incomplete in detail and special rules have to be formulated by the agency, which is often obliged to have public hearings on rulemaking to get public input.

Lobbies and the usual suspects get cracking at this juncture, too, both up front and behind the scenes.

Finally, the laws and rules embody the policy of the agency which reflects the intent of Congress which in theory represented the public.


 

Constitutionally only Congress can declare war and only Congress controls the purse strings. The President is NOT Commander-in-Chief of the United States (we are not a Banana Republic).  The President is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

In this system, constitutionally, the Congress is in charge of policy, although the Executive itself proposes and lobbies for policies to the Congress.

The Executive cheats by withholding information or actually lying to Congress (Iran-Contra, for instance) or, a favorite tactic, cutting the budget of the agency so it cannot do its job. Holding the purse, Congress can diminish authorizations for money and the executive can do the same thing by not bothering to spend up to the authorization limit. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, ordered by the Administration to make sure that ecoli outbreaks do not recur in this country, obstructively had its budget for meat inspection severely cut back by the Republican-dominated Congress because of Meat Industry lobbying pressure at the back door.

More recently, the showcase Dodd-Frank Bill, touted as a measure to rein in Wall Street, is a tiger without teeth because enforcement has been relegated to existing agencies manned by those in thrall to the Financial Industry {SEC, The Fed]. The only part aimed at directly protecting the public from fraud and embezzlement, the Consumer Protection Agency, has had its independence undercut by making it an appendage of existing captured agencies.

As a result,  we have a country that honors the idea of democracy through the republican form of government whose particulars are set forth by the Constitution as guiding principals and actual rules (First Amendment, Interstate Commerce, Census, etc.) but which in practice can be and has been subverted at every level, from election district determinations to law enforcement.

When the Obama Administration ordered various agencies particularly in Defense and Intelligence to revamp their classification procedures and justify in policy declarations just how they determine something should be classified, they simply ignored the order or pretended not to understand it. Strong presidents would have punished this and forced compliance.

So we all eventually accept that human nature, individual personalities, and historical conditions shape and form the actual embodiment of democracy in a constitutional republic of laws.   The rule of law is enacted by men, some good, some not so good.

Thus Government is conditioned by

Politics in reaching for the ideals of  

Democracy

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