Put down the gun

Politics in a democracy is the art of marrying public ideology with private agendas.

Democracy, as humankind understands it, is the process of selecting people to go live in the capital city and draw a paycheck from the public treasury, under threat of not being selected again next time. To call this system of government ‘imperfect’ might be political correctness to the point of insulting us all, or it could be an appalling cynicism. Better to go with the words of Winston Churchill, who averred that democracy was the worst form of government imaginable, except for all the others.

Retail politics, like everything retail, involves marketing. A lot of marketing. Surprisingly, many people are emotionally affected by this marketing, to a degree that would be embarrassing if the product were, say, cheeseburgers with secret sauce. (But possibly not quite so embarrassing were the product an NFL or MLB team, so perhaps there is a kind of cosmic balance somewhere.) Retail politics pushes buttons, by design. The buttons mean nothing in themselves. They are, after all, marketing. What matters is the reaction, and whether the reaction means the ideology is successfully selling.

Understanding the private agenda of this or that politician might make for intriguing gossip, and it might even lead to a somewhat deeper understanding of one issue or another, but it’s not really practical. Private means private, not publicized. The agenda is not accessible. Think of it as you might the recipe for Coke, a trade secret. You’ll never really know.

But political ideology is not fast food. There’s more going on than greasy taste and too many calories, because what’s being decided by those on the public payroll is generally complex, technical, and something we end up having to live with for a long time. Deciding whether to believe a politician is more like choosing a medical procedure, although one hopes there are rules against a doctor peddling a course of treatment known to cause illness.

Caveat emptor seems to be the only lasting rule in politics, as in retail. Let the buyer beware. It’s the rough justice of a free society. And if the legal hold-harmless that goes by the Latin makes an exception for deliberate concealment or misrepresentation, any lawyer can explain to you how hard that is to enforce, and in politics impossible.

It is up to each of us to know when our buttons are being pushed; to know the difference between a mouthwatering picture of a juicy hamburger, and the limp thing in a wrapper; between earnest mottoes affirming small business, job creators, and tax reform, and the actual numbers that might become law – or at least to know that there is a difference.

The ‘fiscal cliff’ that is the crisis du jour is only a crisis in the sense that Congress put a gun to its own head and threatened to pull the trigger. If a crisis is a threat requiring immediate action to avert disaster, the so-called debt crisis turned the corner two years ago (see here). If there is a long term fiscal problem to address, it is a positive certainty that it can not be addressed in the two weeks remaining in this lame duck session, and a near-certainty that even two months will not be enough.

I suspect that Congress would put down the gun, were it not so perversely addicted to button-pushing.

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