11 March, 2018 15:52

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Jack Phelan

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Jack Phelan

15 July, 2016 17:42

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Jack Phelan

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.

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REALLY DANGEROUS INEQUALITY

Old guys, like owners of antique collections, must go the rounds of appropriate restorers, varnishers, plumbers, even, and carpenters, to say nothing of forgers, to maintain the semblance of vitality.   By this time so many of my medics have either died or retired that I am breaking in a new cohort and, surprise, talking about the primaries and associated horrors.

These guys and gals are educated and articulate, some are quite literate and cinemate, but very few have any idea, or interest even, in political reality.   Twenty five years ago one of my neurologists opined, about Clinton, that maybe presidents don’t have to be smart.   Mercilessly I reminded him of this much later in the dim [in so many senses] days of Dubya.
He got the point.   Which is my point – he was at least paying some attention.
Nowadays, a great swath of doctors, lawyers, professors, sharp businessmen, dealership owners, have a very primitive idea of foreign relations and domestic affairs.   They have no interest in political trade-offs, the inevitable incrementalism of treaties and diplomacy.  They take at face value the absurd propagandistic titles of military campaigns  [“Enduring Freedom”] and bills of Congress [“Patriot Act”].
They really do see the world in terms of not only American exceptionalism but of benign American global dominance.   They feel we have “lost” Afghanistan and Iraq [as if we ever owned them or had a right to].   Obama has sold out to Iran.  He gave them tons of money (ignorantly referring to the unfreezing of the Iranians own money); he bows to Putin, who is an evil genius running everything behind the scenes.   Once again the Russians exemplify the abject poverty that results from the collapse of “socialism” and yet are twelve feet tall on the battlefields and borders of the world.
Like many Americans, they may be very informed and shrewd when it comes to contracts and lease terms or matters of professional obligation, but when it comes to policy and politics, they live in a fact-free zone of magical thinking.   And especially in that other form of politics, war.   It’s as if the Enlightenment had totally bypassed them in the area it is needed most.
Given my own biases, I blame the utter failure and craven mercantilism of the media and our bone-headed pop culture, as well as our intimidated schoolteachers and a broad sweep of the professoriate (most of whom teach in business schools) for encouraging ignorance and rewarding jingoistic bravado.    This would include much of the political class itself, who see themselves as types of sportscasters on the outside or salesmen on the inside.
Something is really wrong when football coaches are revered as sages and Colin Powell has an afterlife as a motivational speaker.
Meanwhile there are fewer and fewer citizens paying attention and more and more informed sell-out cynics exploiting and managing the mass deception for oligopolistic ends, astutely disguised [even though often crude camouflage is quite sufficient].
This is the Real Inequality that is tearing us apart.