Wherever there are humans organizing themselves according to needs, desires, interests and resources, there is politics. I take this as a given. We all should. The question isn’t whether to permit politics to “interfere” with the business of human affairs. The question is whether to recognize and accept that politics is always already there.
Our political culture prefers pretending, though.
Most of us strive mightily to “keep politics out of it.” On any given issue, from any given politician, at some point they will make concerted appeals to this make-believe ideal of a politics-less world where political debate unfolds coolly, dispassionately, logically and according to highly contingent notions of what counts as reasonable.
I think we cling tightly to this ideal, because politics has a bad reputation. If something gets “political,” it gets messy, confusing and unsolvable. (Think migrants coming to the southern border in historic numbers.) But politics – precisely democratic politics – is not bad. To the contrary, it’s how normal people achieve anything. Where would normal people be without a way to shake the unshakable?
I would argue that the beneficiaries of status-quo power want us to believe that politics is bad. They understand very well that politics is how normal people advance themselves in the face of status-quo elites who work hard to prevent normal people from advancing. They understand that politics is how the status quo became the status quo. They understand that politics is always already there.
We’d all be better off dropping this phony ideal.
We’d all be better off seeing with clear eyes.
Some might say that I’m being cynical – that I believe that everything is as good or bad as everything else and that nothing matters except winners and losers in a war of all against all. I’m suggesting no such thing. Indeed, such accusations are rooted in status-quo anxiety over normal people figuring out that politics is how change happens.
When we drop this phony ideal of a politics-less world, a different and more edifying question comes to light. If we can’t live in a world without politics, what kind of politics is acceptable? In terms of organizing ourselves into a civilized society, what is politics for?
It could be war by other means, as the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt asked us to believe. If we accept that definition as valid, then we accept the perspective of status-quo elites who are already engaged in a continuous war by other means against normal people.
In this sense, there is only one truly political party in the US. While the Republicans bring a gun to a gunfight – literally, in the case of the GOP’s armed paramilitaries – the Democrats bring reasonableness. This “asymmetry” has been the butt of jokes and the bane of liberals for decades, but especially since the election of a criminal president.
What if that’s wrong, though? If we accept the perspective of the parties being asymmetrical – that while one party brings a weapon, the other party brings an argument – then we accept the perspective of status-quo elites on what politics is for: war by other means.
Do we – do we liberals – want to accept that? If we do, we accept, though perhaps without knowing it, the claim that democracy is unsustainable, which brings us back to accepting the view of status-quo elites who are already engaged in war by other means.
Liberals believe democracy is sustainable. They believe freedom is a birthright. They believe individuals are born with inalienable rights. They believe the government should maximize opportunity and minimize suffering. So liberals must reject the definition of politics as war by other means and replace it with something constructive, creative and liberating. Fortunately, the president is modeling that.
In his historic paradigm-shifting speech earlier this month, Joe Biden said, rightly, that “democracy endures only if … we the people see politics not as total war but the mediation of our differences.” Politics, in other words, is how democracies solve their collective problems.
So we should oppose anyone who wants to “keep politics out of it.” We should fight, using politics, those who depoliticize politics. We should make an example of Republicans like Florida’s Ron DeSantis.
I know this sounds strange, but the governor depoliticized politics when he dispatched state agents to reroute migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. I know. It looks like the exact opposite – that he’s pulling off a political stunt to win over the criminal former president’s base.
To be sure, it’s all that – theatrical, wasteful, possibly illegal.
But by appearing to kidnap vulnerable migrants for the purpose of demonstrating cynically that “elite liberals can’t handle” migrants, DeSantis reduces the scope of understanding to us against them.
If he can convince normal people that the problems of migration, which are real and difficult, can be understood as a matter of racial identity, not politics, then he’s won. He’s taken away the best tool that normal people have for changing their world for the better.
Sadly, the Democrats often help.
Like everyone else, the Democrats tend to believe that it’s best to keep politics out of politics. They lean into reasonableness, data, polling, research – anything that does not seem politically motivated.
While countering DeSantis’ obvious “political stunt” is noble, they end up deepening its impact by appealing to a make-believe ideal of a politics-less world. The unintentional result is depoliticizing politics: surrendering to status-quo elites even before the battle has begun.
The solution is not for the Democrats to adapt politics as war by other means, but to double down on politics as problem-solving - as “the mediation of our differences.” Put another way, the Democrats should drop the idea that politics and problem-solving are mutually exclusive. The GOP knows they are not. That’s why “political stunts” are so effective. They emasculate without appearing to emasculate.
Fortunately, this administration seems to get it. Earlier this month, the president redefined politics according to liberal principles. Over the weekend, his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, took this one step farther. Responding to a question about DeSantis’ scheme to send migrants north, he said: “It’s one thing to call attention to a problem when you have a course of action. It’s another to just call attention to the problem, because the problem is actually more useful to you. That helps you call attention to yourself.”
It depoliticizes politics.