Political Theater Need Not Be Children’s Theater

As different worlds collide in our state and country, indeed in the world, I keep thinking of what I consider the most important idea expressed by President Obama in his Inaugural Address and the words he used to express it- “The time has come to set aside childish things.”   The childish things or habits  which we ought to set aside are displayed on the stage of the  “political theater “ that our elected and appointed leaders regularly present to us to gain acceptance of or at least acquiescence to politically controversial decisions. Those decisions and the policies embodied in them emerge after original legislative, executive, and regulatory ideas are scrutinized and modified by compromise as a result of being subjected to what my more elitist friends and writers describe as “the messy workings of the political marketplace.”

                The political marketplace of our constitutional representative democracy is a colorful collage of interest groups, large and small, governmental and non-governmental, economic, corporate, environmental, sectarian and non-sectarian. As Nicholas Lehman, a Critic-At-Large for the New Yorker Magazine, who has analyzed the work of Arthur Fisher Bentley in his book entitled “The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures,” points out “For Bentley, every political force that matters is an interest group, regardless of whether it cops to the charge or not, “States and cities are “locality groups,” income categories are “wealth groups,” devoted followers of a popular politician or a cause are “personality groups.” Under Bentley’s theory when groups are comprehensively and accurately depicted and assembled on the stage of our political theater “everything is stated and accounted for.”
                If Bentley’s theory is accepted, then, you can’t talk about collective “public opinion” because there is no such thing as “the public” (there are only diverse groups). Likewise terms such as “the public interest” and “the popular will” bandied about by politicians seeking approval or even affection from “the people” have no real substantive content because “there is nothing which is best literally for the whole people.”
                Arthur Fisher Bentley’s construct of reality is more clearly understood by realizing that he generally divides interest groups into two categories: Organization Groups (contemporary examples would include The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), The National Association of Broadcasters, Chambers of Commerce and AFL-CIO) and “Talk Groups”  which encompass all those who “claim” to represent “the public interest” or a “good cause” – e.g. journalists, reformers, Think Tanks, humanitarians and policy analysts.   The influence of the later “Talk Groups” are in Bentley’s view “vastly overestimated and overvalued.” In fact as Nicholas Lehman points out, Bentley goes further than most including this writer in labeling “anyone who comes into public life claiming not to have an interest as either deluded or deceitful.”
                Now “Political Theater” is not necessarily “Children’s Theater.” But sometimes the political actors and actresses who produce it seem to think it has to be in order for their decisions to be accepted. The politicians, their staffs, consultants, pollsters and ultimately policy- makers accept the conventional wisdom of their “elite” class that “the people” want politics to have good guys and bad guys, good policies and bad policies, etc. In other words they presume that “we” want politics in our intentionally designed complex system of constitutionally based checks and balances to be simple even if it is not. They want us to ignore the reality that people get involved in politics to get what they want which may or may not entail economic advantage, power, prestige, or influence for themselves, their organizations or their causes. Finally nobody is a member of only one interest group and no interest group stands apart from other groups and behaves in a single consistent and totally rational way which elevates them above the rest or legitimizes any claim they may make to be “the true voice of the people.”
                The result as Bentley describes it is reality. “Intelligent actions, emotional actions, linked actions, trains of action, planned actions, plotted actions, scheming, experimenting, persisting, exhorting, compelling, mastering, struggling, co-operating- such activities by the thousand we find going on around us in populations among which we are placed. Accepting that this is, the result of the democracy which our “Founders,” who themselves represented various interest groups, created is to accept reality. To do so is neither cynical nor depressing. As it did when Arthur Fisher Bentley helped organize progressive Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign n 1924, it can serve as a “Call to Action.”
                That is in fact exactly what the Obama Administration is saying and doing when its rhetoric suggests that it will “change the old way of doing things” and “clean up the mess in Washington.” That is also clearly what the Administration is doing now when it plans to “mobilize its internet network of supporters” in support of the legislation to adopt the President’s budget and priorities. Applying Bentley’s analytical framework the Administration is simply adjusting the correlation of and balance of forces among interest groups, bringing some into power and relegating others who were elevated for the last eight years, to lesser positions.
                Hopefully both those who are being “elevated to greater positions of power” as well as those “relegated to lesser positions” by the new administration will have or develop the analytical skills to recognize that this is the natural ebb and flow of the workings of our democracy and not the result of either the “promptings of pure justice” or “the corruption of the system” by the political opponents of the previous administration and its supporters. If they do, then civility will govern relations inside and outside all three branches of government, motives will not be questioned without evidence of wrongdoing, bipartisanship will occasionally be possible, and when it isn’t issues will be resolved as a result of politicians, agencies, and courts working through the political and economic issues that that are too mundane to be a part of the public conversion but are nevertheless important.   “And Yes Virginia,” this will be accomplished with the help of lawyers and “heaven forbid” lobbyists. More on that next month.

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