“Politics” is a dirty word.
A common phrase in our world is that we “need to keep politics out” of a given situation. It seems to come from a noble intent, which is the desire to make rational decisions that are best for everyone. But what is it that we are trying to keep out?
Webster’s dictionary has five definitions for “politics”, and I’d like to focus on the first and the last:
1 a : the art or science of government b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government
5 a : the total complex of relations between people living in society.
The first definition is the government one that is most commonly used. The latter is the variant that gives rise to terms such as “office politics” or “marital politics”. Are the two definitions related? I would argue that, yes, in a democratic society they simply have to be. That means that when we attempt to keep “politics” out of a situation, we are attempting to keep human relationships out of it.
What are the issues that face us? I can tell you this much, they all begin and end with people. Let’s consider Webster’s third definition of “politics”
3 a : political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership
I give to you that this is what most people want to keep out of many situations: Interest. But do we not all have an interest in what happens to the world around us? “Interest” has become a dirty word, but there can be no question that a democratic nation requires that people have interests vested in the political structures. If they did not, why would people be connected to the operation of the government at all?
The problem with attempts to “keep politics out” or any situation is that this is, by itself, a political statement. It assumes that cool, rational planning and decision making is the most desirable thing. This is where we got Independent School Boards and County Manager style government. Government agencies, run by professionals, are supposed to coolly keep a firm hand on the tiller.
Such an idea is fundamentally anti-democratic. The politics of keeping politics out of debate is the politics of stifling debate. We must be more mature about how we look at things, and realize that politics is democracy, and the interests that define politics are the way we connect to our political system.
Denial of our need for a “complex of relations between people” is the surest way to kill democracy. Rather than be embarrassed by the existence of “interest”, we should celebrate them, and require that everyone state them clearly and honestly. We do not need to “keep politics out” of our system, we need much more of it, more artfully practiced.