Politics, by its very nature, is about power. To imagine otherwise is to underestimate the value of the issues debated and the offices contested.
To say that politics is about power is not the same as to say that it is only about power. Power is a necessary component, but so are values, virtue and the public good. Under the best leaders, power takes a back seat to nobler things.
Watching both our state and our federal legislatures struggle this last month invites us to ask what combination of components is driving the current legislative process. It has looked, for all the world, like the messiest (and least successful) of sausage-making efforts.
That simile provides more insight than we might expect.
Most of us, if we watched sausage being made, wouldn’t have the stomach to eat it. Even the best of sausage involves the disturbing process of stuffing raw meats (and often other materials) into a casing. Ugh!
What separates the sausage I want to eat from the one I won’t go near isn’t how pretty the process looks, but what goes into the sausage. Is it good for me, or is it good only for the butcher’s bottom line?
Similarly, I’m not troubled by the messy appearances of the legislative process. I am concerned about the substance, about exactly what is being stuffed in to each bill’s casing.
It has always been true that some legislative language has been introduced for profoundly impure reasons. There always have been those who have used their position in a legislature for political or personal gain or to promote the interests of select groups with the full understanding that such work would be at the expense of the common good. I’ve known a few such individuals; you probably have, too.
There also is a long-standing tradition of legislators debating other legislators on the merits of legislation and of legislators being persuaded by the arguments presented by their peers. In this tradition, the best legislators have strong convictions about fundamental things. They also have the humility to be open to a change of position on a specific bill in light of better evidence or analysis. And they have the wisdom to recognize that a small advance in favor of the public good often requires compromise with less noble things.
The public face of the current legislative sausage factory is nearly devoid of discussion of the merits of any bill. Advocates defend their positions by repeating their lines. Leaders do whip counts (a necessary if at times dark art), yet seem unable or unwilling to count on their peers to reveal to them a truth they have missed…unless it’s a truth about the distribution of power in the system.
That public face may be an unfair portrait, but it is the process we see.
I’d like to believe it is possible for our legislators to step back from the battle long enough to reflect on the needs of the public (all of us). I’d like to believe in the emergence, through honest debate, of coalitions in support of good policy.
In short, I’d like to believe that the policy sausage, whatever gets stuffed into it, is made primarily to serve the public…and serve them well.