Redefining Politics for a New Century

My understanding of the definition of politics has undergone a dramatic transformation since the days when I sat in front of the television and watched politicians performing their theatrics.

Back then, during the Reagan years, I saw politics defined as a troupe of wrinkly old guys in suits tossing the contents of their briefcases at each other. These scowling faced men - and they mostly were men - as I saw it then, fastidiously read their own legislation and transmitted complex, nuanced information to one another that 'regular people' could not understand. I was unconvinced that these people were human. Instead, they were rigorously trained, ivy league-educated automatons who knew far more than the rest of us. They drafted legislation, imparted expert advice to craft policy, advised Presidents as to the wisdom of a certain course. They were Gods, or at least, Olympian sub-deities. They traced their talons over actuarial tables and spoke to Senate Hearing Committees on the nightly news about things that were best for us. They only revealed their humanity in odd moments, either by taking sips of water or making their colleagues laugh while giving testimony.

Perhaps it was my conventional Democratic upbringing, but for me then, politicians existed on a higher echelon than the rest of us, and for me, at that time, this was how things were meant to be.

When Clinton got elected, my understanding of politics expanded. That famous election year (deftly chronicled in Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant 'The War Room,') changed politics forever. With the help of MTV's Rock the Vote, campaign strategy suddenly belonged to everybody. Politics was all of a sudden not just the mechanisms on Capital Hill, but the tactics employed to get there, and it included voters and young people as an essential part of that process.

During the decade after Clinton's win, my understanding of politics expanded even more. The role of media transformed with the help of Al Gore's greatest invention, the Internet. Imperfections in the political process, and of politicians, grew clearer and clearer to me as my understanding of society expanded. Politicians, as it turned out, didn't always have the information needed to make informed choices, and it was up to us to keep them honest.

The decade leading up to 9/11 was an interesting one for media. Newt Gingrich's bloviations led to a Congress whose authority rested on the ability to circumvent, usurp and gut legal loopholes for political advantage. Any student of American history can point to dark channels running through two hundred years of Congressional corruption of this sort, but the Internet age - and the coked-out Media driving it - spun it past us at a closer range than ever before. All that made society run - not just politics but lifestyle - was suddenly over-amplified and photocopied to the point of degradation. Our understanding of society, and our role in politics began to reduce. Today, politics is distilled down to a clever Huffington Post headline, and our eyes are trained to the most divisive and controversial content, way up at the top of the page. The fine print, as it stands, is history.

After the Age of Terror began, my understanding of politics expanded yet again, veering wildly from its trajectory. Politics, as I had understood it all of my life, took place somewhere far away, in columned buildings and vast chambers where I had no direct control. This was, I realized, never true. My traditional Democratic understanding of Government, by turns deferential and prostrate, kept me feeling subjugated and separate from my Representatives. After 2001, though, many Americans, like me, began feeling a sick futility at this 'separateness' from Government. A rebirth of rugged individualism took root here, and politics became a concept tied to a sense of individual responsibility for one's circumstances.

Since then, I have sought to see politics as a process that starts at home, with personal choices on a local scale. The challenge has been in taking on this new faith in politics without losing my faith in the promise of Government.

My faith in Representative Democracy to catalyze social change has not left me at all, but I admit that Government no longer works. This is true because campaign finance reform and Lobby reform have not taken hold where they should have. Those two issues are paramount to the ability for Government to still work. Current disenchantment with Government overreach and waste and corruption is understandable. This is not because people have finally understood that Federal influence is best shrunken to nothing - although many feel that way. It is rather because the Government we see now, the one we've lost faith in, the one that doesn't work, is mingled inextricably with Corporate interests' intimate penetration in our political process. Things got this way through bad policy, and only reinstatement of good policy can pull us out again. 

Our current mistrust of Government - its effectiveness to help us when our individual abilities are not enough, to pull up the drowning and disenfranchised - is sadly valid. It shows us what a wasteful behemoth Government has become. It is a zombie: beholden to the worst instincts of self-interest. People who say Government has been wrested from us are right. It has. This is not to say that Government cannot be made to work, or that Government needs to be abolished. It must be reclaimed to represent us in the manner it was meant to, and it currently does not. 

That good policy, the one that can make Government work for us again, will not magically generate in Washington. It comes from the local level activism, the kind that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement and the labor movements in Wisconsin and Ohio have demonstrated can work. It starts with the individual, then to the small group, and then to the collective, and then, lastly, all of the citizenry. This is politics, as I understand it now - a passionate line, drawn from individual need, and pragmatically finding purpose as it finds more souls to inhabit and more influence to collect. Individual activism, from the bottom-up, is politics. Those guys on the hill? Those wrinkly, be-suited sub-deities throwing paper at each other? They are not politics. They are the result of politics. They belong to us. They are our puppets. They are servants. At least, that is how it should be. 

The main problem - that these people are current not our puppets, but rather puppets of the Lobby, and of Corporate person hood not representing the community at large - should not be an issue up for debate. However, this is the debate of our century. Some simply will not recognize and admit the extent to which the worst instincts of unbridled laissez faire Capitalism have directly caused Washington's downfall. On the contrary, many disagree with that assessment and instead feel the fulfillment of our needs as individuals is dependent on the successes on Wall Street. They feel that our interest in generating affluence for ourselves through these Corporate mechanisms solely determines the validity of our beliefs. They tell us - we who do not invest as they do or preach Milton Friedman's economic philosophies - that if we do not take it upon ourselves to learn the game, and game the system, and use it to our advantage, then it is our fault, and our weakness, and our problem. We are, in effect, told we are too stupid to be valid political participants.

No wonder so many people feel disenchanted with the political process! We are told - in so many words - that the validity of our beliefs in a working Government hinges on our ability to understand arcane or complex concepts and our willingness to accept and play along with a system that we fundamentally feel is corrupt.

There is much wrong with Government, but this is not proof, in and of itself, that Government does not work. It is merely proof that Government has been possessed by interests that do not always jibe with the needs off the community at large. Those needs are diverse. Not all poverty is caused by one thing. Not all bankruptcies and foreclosures are caused by the same circumstances. Not all misfortune falls on us because we are irresponsible. The arc of history, as was stated by Martin Luther King, Jr., may bend toward justice, but the best intentions of empowering individual responsibility in our society have unintentionally bent this arc of history toward power and influence. Many do not see that this has taken place. Instead, they only see gridlock, and impotence when they hear the word politics. It is enough to make anyone never want to discuss politics again. Who can blame them?

What's the solution?

A goal is reached, first and foremost, through local activism and tiny, individual choices. They coalesce to form my current understanding of my identity as an American citizen, and of politics. Where to shop, who to give our money to, which organizations and products to support, how to communicate my values to those around me in a constructive way - these all, put together, comprise my current understanding of 'politics.'

Our individual responsibilities to our immediate communities should be first, but that cultivation leads to bottom-up activism that transcends any one community's interests. I harbor a strong faith in both the importance of local level control, individual responsibility, and the belief in the essential existence of a Government to temper the chaotic diversity of the country as a whole, and sustain a National mood and identity through social policy that affects us all. These values need not be contradictory. The conflicting interests and mechanisms that comprise our uniqueness - our checks, our balances - are devised to temper extremism. 

When extremism still threatens to take hold, despite our best intentions, we turn to the definition of politics that applies to each and every one of us: eternal vigilance. I don't just mean vigilance against an overreaching and wasteful Government, but vigilance against the Corporations and money interests that make it that way, vigilance against the media that, for sake of a story or headline, cultivates extremism and ignorance by misrepresenting and oversimplifying complex issues. This vigilance can take the form of small, individual choices of conscience, and the passion to communicate those choices to the community in the hopes that they serve as an example to others. This sort of vigilance does not trod over others' understanding of the world; it does not belittle or mock others understanding of Economics or Foreign Policy; it does not divide us from those with whom we will always disagree. It's compatible with Patriotism, it is compatible with diversity and tolerance, it is compatible with the Christian tenet of living by example. Politics, in other words, does not have to be a dirty word, or an exhausting ordeal. It can belong to us again.


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