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Cornelius: In defense of politics and politicians

POSTED: May 18, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Americans love democracy, but mostly hate politics. Many would rid us of politics if they could. They say things like: "We'll never get good government until we get rid of all the politics and politicians."

That idea is born of a misunderstanding of both politics and democracy: Politics is democracy's oxygen, its lifeblood, its living soul.

We can prudently ask for more principled and informed politics, from citizens as well as politicians. We can prudently ask for less self-righteous politics, from left and right. We can prudently ask politicians for more of the politics of substance and leadership, less of mere sound bites and media posturing. But if we want self-government — our federal republic — we cannot rid ourselves of politics.

Politics flows naturally from our differing opinions on issues and our differing philosophies of what government should and should not be doing in the first place.

Politics is people electing public officials.

Politics is people banding together with like-minded people — auto workers, teachers, environmentalists, business, government bureaucrats, left-wingers, right-wingers, handwringers — to further their own ideals, values and interests.

Some who hate politics would have us cede our political responsibilities to scientists and experts. We might as well wish for Plato's philosopher kings. Political questions are not the proper province of scientists and experts.

(Anyone who thinks scientists and experts would undoubtedly give us better policy and decision making might want to consider that the experts, the Army Corps of Engineers, and scientists have not yet worked wonders in the 20-year-legal battle over water among Georgia, Alabama and Florida.)

Scientists and experts give us data, information, ideas and, in the best cases, honest and informed judgment. But judgment is judgment, not science. And action on most public issues hinges on judgment about legitimate, competing values and priorities.

Should we spend any "extra" public dollars to improve math and science teaching in the public schools so more youngsters can get higher paying jobs, or to build public health clinics in rural areas or to provide more poor mothers with prenatal care? Such questions cannot be answered scientifically, no matter how much data we gather.

The following question brings into focus the limits on what scientists and other experts can do for us in political matters: How do we resolve the conflicts when legitimate requests, sound data and informed judgments of scientists and experts in one field run head on into those of scientists and experts in other fields?

Educators can rightly say that if we are to increase opportunity for more people we should spend more money on education. Other experts can rightly say that our economy and quality of life will be stunted if we fail to spend more money to guarantee adequate supplies of water, or to make mass transportation truly mass transportation. And on it goes — legitimate, competing claims.

Democracy and our differences on such matters require politics, and hence politicians and the people who vote for them. We're the instruments of politics..

"Politicians" — the word is often said with a sneer — are pretty much like the rest of us. Some few are outstanding men and women and excellent politicians, dedicated to the public good as best they see it. Some few are scoundrels, dedicated to advancing their personal interests by hook or crook. Most are good people trying to do a good job, their best intentions and efforts frustrated by the complex tangle of issues and governing processes around them.

We the people indeed get the politics, the politicians, and the government we deserve. Most of us never attend a city or county commission meeting, unless our own interests are directly at stake. Too often we consider our own politicking nothing of the sort: We see ourselves as principled, seeking the public good; it's those folks on the other side who are politicking for narrow, personal ends. And our pork isn't pork; theirs is. And too often we mistake having an opinion for being informed.

Here is the nub of the matter: Our politics is a privilege, not a pestilence.

We can lose this privilege, and hence our self government and liberty, through complacency and ignorance: ignorance of our history, ignorance of our political foundation and ideals, ignorance of the issues of the day, ignorance of our own political responsibilities.

We improve our chances of keeping this privilege and strengthening it, as we improve our politics, not as we rid ourselves of it.

Tack Cornelius is a writer and Gainesville resident.



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