The Care and Feeding of the (American) Political Animal
by Stephen Foster
As some may recall, last month I engaged in a colloquy with a few of this site’s more frequent participants on the subject of the danger of religion’s influence in American politics; that is, from an historical and eschatological Seventh-day Adventist perspective. In fact, in so doing, we essentially took Dr. Cindy Tutsch’s, “WWJD” blog in a direction that she could not possibly have foreseen. However this almost inevitably goes with the blogging territory; and can, of course, happen to any of us at any time. LOL
My objective in this blog is two-fold, and these reasons should be revealed or become evident as this is being read. First of all, I would suggest that although I am somewhat fascinated with the world of politics and public affairs, particularly American political science/history, and have considerable respect and admiration for many public servants, I consider the practice of politics — the art and science of getting elected — as, all too often, a dirty business; with striking similarities to the ‘industries’ of gaming and prostitution.
We would of course like to think that most public officials are idealists who believe they have an obligation (or a duty of sorts) to contribute their talents and abilities for the benefit of the communities from which they come, on behalf of their families and fellow citizens.
Public service is one thing; what it takes to serve the public as an elected public official, and to remain in office once elected — that is to say, the game or business of politics — is quite another.
When beneficial political outcomes are accomplished, they are accomplished by those who make public policy AND by those who have influenced the formation of beneficial policy. The problem is that public service and public affairs commonly represent an entanglement of competing social and economic interests; all of whom ostensibly view their particular interests as being in the public interest. Needless to say, they cannot all be right.
The skeptic, or cynic, in me tells me that some of those who represent certain interests have to know what they are seeking to accomplish is not actually in the public interest, but rather merely in the narrow interests of a particularly influential and powerful constituency or portion of the electorate. Some may actually be so narrow minded and provincial in their thinking as to believe that whatever is in their constituencies’ interest is somehow also in the public interest.
Whether a politician is sincere, or sincerely delusional, what they are in search of, for good or ill, is power; pure and simple. My observation is that this is the basic, instinctive motivation of most politicians; and the key to understanding them.
In the American political system, power in the legislative branch of government is most easily acquired, amassed, or accumulated by seniority. Seniority is acquired by being repeatedly reelected. Reelection is accomplished by piecing together a decisive, yet not divisive, coalition of the electorate; and amassing a sufficiently large campaign war chest. Campaign war chests are amassed by voting and/or promising to vote in the interests of those who have contributed most to the campaign coffers.
Those holding executive offices in the American political system include mayors, governors, and the President of the United States. Although these office holders obtain power through similar processes of election; they function differently than do legislators. Instead of voting in the interests of their most vocal and deep-pocketed supporters, executive office holders support, promote, champion, and eventually sign into law initiatives favored by the most vocal, deep-pocketed, and thus influential members of their electoral coalition; whatever those issues may be. Certainly, those perceived to be the most effective and 'successful' executives do anyway.
As we have noted, the two major types of political animals are the politicians who seek, or are elected to, public office and the political activists and operatives who influence and/or ‘handle’ these politicians. Political activists, of course, include those interests and/or interest groups who ‘petition’ their government by means of lobbying or through the funding of what have been termed issue ads; and those who likewise seek to inform and influence the public and public office seekers and holders, but perhaps by less expensive means (often of simple financial necessity). Political operatives are largely represented by the necessary entourage of politicians who, among other things, manage political campaigns and deal with the press in spokesperson capacities.
According to Bradford Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation, and author of the, Citizens Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials, the political class is generally much more responsive to interests than they are to opinions. In other words, for all practical purposes, interest groups are more influential than are individual constituent opinions.
As identified by cliffnotes.com, interest groups in American governmental politics can be generally categorized to include economic groups, including for example the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and the American Medical Association; public interest groups, such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters; government groups such as the National League of Cities and the National Governors Association; civil rights interest groups like the NAACP and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund; officially ideological interest groups such as Americans for Democratic Action and the American Conservative Union; single issue groups like the National Rifle Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving; AND religious interest groups such as the North American Division of SDA Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and The Christian Coalition.
Recent Court rulings, notably among the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission have made it possible for interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to convey campaign electioneering messages in or during political campaigns; thus strengthening the power of at least the most affluent interest groups to influence public opinion (in :15,:30, and :45 second intervals, at that) at the critically few times the public is paying some attention to issues and political candidacies. Some interest groups have effectively eclipsed the roles of political parties in this regard. Former U.S. Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA) has recently noted, for example, that the '527' entity American Crossroads spent more money in the 2010 mid-term election (on the unofficial behalf of Republicans) than did the Republican National Committee.
Unsurprisingly, the religious interest groups are of particular concern in this space. Make no mistake about it; religious interest groups are no less
'interested' in influencing public policy than are other interest groups. As we have noted, either money or the ability to otherwise sway public opinion is what makes an interest group effective. The latter is the natural currency in which religious interest groups operate. Religions do, after all, seek to influence, if not completely change, ‘hearts and minds.’ This is in fact their raison d’être; so to say, that they are somewhat effective in mobilizing the opinion of the faithful is axiomatic.
It is therefore safe to conclude that religious interest groups represent the strongly held views and opinions of segments of the electorate; and depending on the cultural demographic of any given electorate, a given religious interest group will have more or less influence. Where religious interest groups have the most influence is where they find the greatest number of adherents to the ‘principles’ and policies for which they advocate. Put another way, politicians will advocate for principles and policies that are most commonly held by those whom they purportedly represent; and again make no mistake, politicians who are elected in states, districts, or municipalities where religious interest groups are most influential — because of the particular cultural or religious composition of their particular constituencies — are just as willing to listen to, and act on behalf of, those interests as they are any other similarly influential interest group.
Such is the nature of the beast.