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Disdain for Politics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
February 27, 2015

Consider Lawrence M. Mead’s classic summary of the politician’s calling in his 2003 Journal of Public Affairs Education article: “Political leaders constantly struggle to reconcile policy and politics. That is, they must somehow square what they want to do with what the political system will allow them to do. What they think is desirable ‘on the merits’ must be reconciled with what they can get accepted by other politicians and then implemented by administrators. Squaring that circle is what statecraft is all about. The past leaders we honor are those who, despite these constraints, managed to institute some major new policy or program, or to surmount some great crisis such as war or depression.”

Professor Mead argued that the study of policy should be combined with the study of politics. He lamented what he saw as a growing division between political scientists, who study political reality, and scholars who focus on policy solutions.

That this theme is still current is evidenced by The Washington Post article, “The Problem with Public Policy Schools,” by James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley. The authors questioned the efficacy of huge investments in new and expanded schools of public policy, pointing out that all the policy analysis in the world is powerless against political forces to the contrary. As they put it, “If policymakers ignore policy school research or can’t understand it, what can policy professors and graduates possibly accomplish?”

Wilson febCan it be doubted that most of us, most of the time, deprecate the political arena, where advocates and opponents of thousands of propositions slug it out, at every level of government, in never-ending battle? At best, we view the practice of politics with a kind of morbid fascination. But mostly we want to bring the politics of the issues we face to a close, so we can get on with policy. We yearn for “statecraft.”

But what if we have this all wrong? What if statecraft is too rare to be a possible solution to the complex problems we face? Making statecraft the answer to politics is like making superstar teachers the answer to education. To be sure, we should celebrate statecraft and superstar teachers. But if we want the world to be a better place, it has to be achievable in the ordinary course of events by those of us who are ordinary.

If we are to achieve things through the political arena, then, they will have to be achieved by the politicians we have, not the statesmen we yearn for. This means, in turn that the achievements of the political arena will have to reflect political reality, which means they will have to be acceptable to the public and the voters and also to the interests that have the power to block them. This means, in turn that deals will have to be cut. This is how political products get made. Those of us who are not politicians will often find aspects of those deals objectionable. So be it. Let us not forget that Abraham Lincoln’s administration bought the 13th Amendment; it was not an epiphany of rectitude or even decency.

It is a plain fact of life that the practice of politics is about making political bargains. Policies emerge only in the aftermath of those bargains. Policies do not emerge, and have never emerged, because they are intellectually preferable. If we want to achieve political outcomes that would deserve to be called policies, we must give our politicians leave to make political bargains. Simply put, we must let our elected officials contend with political reality. Contending with political reality is, and always has been, a prerequisite for achievements that extend beyond the political arena.

In other words, the pursuit of savory outcomes demands that we encourage and support political compromises the details of which we may regard as unsavory. Perhaps, if we granted our politicians greater leave to make bargains, and rewarded them for doing so, political achievements would result. What if, for example, generous earmarks could be attached to major bills that included a certain level of bipartisan support? What if deals between opposition political leaders produced added bonuses in the form of political rewards for those leaders’ constituents? Dozens of potentially rewarding strategies can be readily imagined.

Maybe we would even change our minds about what is savory and what isn’t. Maybe we would learn to respect instead of denigrate the practice of politics. If we want our politicians to move beyond the stalemate that characterizes our time, political deal making is the only possible way.

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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