There’s hardly anything as insulting in American politics these days as being labeled “political.”
What was the Susan G. Komen Foundation doing when it cut grants to Planned Parenthood?“Playing politics with women’s health,” according to the latter group’s president, Cecile Richards. When the Obama administration overruled the FDA on the Plan B morning-after pill, critics charged that “politics triumphed over science.”
Meanwhile, Republican groups are running ads hammering President Obama on Solyndra, calling it a “government fiasco infused with politics at every level.” Congressional Republicans have charged Obama with “playing politics” on the budget and the Keystone XL pipeline. And the White House has said the same of the Republicans’ handling of the payroll tax cut.
It’s not surprising that “political” is an insult. Congress is gridlocked, with a 10 percent approval rating, and the 2012 campaign ads are doing their best to turn voters off.
But there is something troubling about the extent to which our leaders have made politics their bogeyman. Most important issues, from reproductive health to clean-energy investment, are riddled with politics — as they should be. They involve serious questions about what the country values and where it wants to invest its resources. To suggest that one’s own side is free of politics is not only sanctimonious, it’s also destructive. Demonizing politics leads Americans to disengage further from the sphere where big decisions are made, ceding the political realm to the very people who denigrate it at every opportunity.
Politics in its highest form has noble roots, going back to the Greeks — it is the art of government, of ordering life among a people. But Americans have long professed disdain for its grubbier aspects: chasing votes, tearing down opponents, cutting deals. This squeamishness has even swung presidential elections. In 1884, a group of Republicans dubbed the Mugwumps broke with their party over the political patronage and financial corruption surrounding the GOP nominee, James Blaine, and tipped the election to the Democrat, Grover Cleveland.
The do-gooder tradition has brought about needed change. Around the turn of the 20th century, disgust with Tammany Hall-style party machines gave rise to the Progressives, high-minded reformers who brought us primary elections and the direct election of U.S. senators. Half a century later, Watergate gave rise to a new wave of government reform and a squeaky-clean president in Jimmy Carter, who offered himself as an antidote to the sordid politics of the Nixon era.
More recently, it was not hard to discern a similar lofty strain in the rise of Barack Obama, whose defining goal, more than any policy aim, was to cleanse Washington of partisan gamesmanship. “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” he declared in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. In the 2008 primaries, he framed his “new politics” as a contrast to the “calculation” and “triangulation” that, he strongly implied, characterized Hillary and Bill Clinton’s approach. The pitch was persuasive, and it helped sweep Obama into the White House.
Obama was right to decry the empty gestures of today’s Washington, the tactics and posturing aimed at winning the day’s cable news cycle or setting up a future attack ad. But he and others go too far when they dismiss as mere “politics” the actions by opponents that are driven not by point-scoring but true disagreement. When the Republicans were digging in against extending the payroll tax cut late last year — which the White House decried as “playing politics” — it was because they were truly reluctant to extend the cut. They wanted it to be paid for (a condition they do not demand for tax cuts geared to the wealthy).
But they also knew that Obama needed the extension to fuel the economic recovery on which his reelection prospects depend. For Republicans, the incentive to undermine Obama’s reelection chances simply outweighed the tax cut’s potential benefits for the economy. That’s politics. And it’s also politics for the White House to define the Republicans’ priorities on the tax cut — as it eventually did, to great effect.
Or take the showdown over the Komen Foundation’s decision to withdraw funds from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. The leaders and supporters of Planned Parenthood traced Komen’s decision to the fact that some of its donors objected to Planned Parenthood’s abortion work. But there was no clear line here between “politics” and the pure, pink-hued world of breast cancer prevention. Planned Parenthood provides all manner of women’s health services, including breast cancer screening, but it also provides abortions. It’s hardly surprising that staunch abortion opponents would find it objectionable that Komen was giving money to the country’s largest abortion provider. They were simply following a line that led them to a moral conclusion.
Planned Parenthood argued in response that it was wrong for Komen to let Planned Parenthood’s role as a provider of abortions — a legal procedure — outweigh its role in breast cancer prevention. With that reasoning, it won resoundingly. But again, that’s politics.
The same goes for the critics who saw “politics triumph over science” in the Obama administration’s decision to overrule the FDA on the Plan B pill. Yes, the FDA’s experts had judged that there was a public health benefit to expanding access to Plan B. But making the morning-after pill available to teenagers without a prescription, as the FDA recommended, raises unavoidable political questions: Is this something our society is willing to accept?
Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of that decision, it was rightfully a political one. Who would we rather have making these decisions — our elected representatives, acting with the input of experts such as FDA scientists but also with an ear to their constituents, or the experts alone? The experts often have their own biases, such as industry ties. Elected officials are at least somewhat accountable to all of us.
Republicans have been just as free with the “playing politics” charge. They invoked it against Obama when he decided to postpone a ruling on the Keystone XL pipeline, accusing him of doing so to score points with environmentalists. Rick Santorum declared on the campaign trail that by standing in the way of increased fossil fuel production, Obama was relying on claims about global warming that are not climate science but “political science.” Republicans have been joined by some Democrats, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), who declared: “I disagree with [the pipeline] being used as a political football.”
But how could the pipeline decision be anything but a political football? It involved a classic political trade-off between conflicting concerns: jobs and a secure new energy supply vs. the huge carbon emissions generated by Canadian tar sands and the environmental risks of the pipeline itself. A battle over a difficult question such as this is politics at its most essential.
What I find most confounding are the attempts by Republican groups to slam the administration’s ill-fated investment in the solar energy company Solyndra as “infused with politics at every level” — in the words of a TV ad paid for by Crossroads GPS, a group co-founded by Karl Rove. That quote comes from a Dec. 25 article in The Washington Post that described how administration officials weighed the political ramifications of the investment at every turn.
But why should that be so shocking? A government-backed venture-capital initiative is inherently political. The administration has deemed the clean-energy industry enough of a priority that it is supporting it with taxpayer money, and it dearly hopes that the investment will pan out to justify that choice.
Now, it would be a problem if the investment involved “politics” in the most pejorative sense — a giveback to the Democratic donor who is also a Solyndra backer. But despite much digging, there is no proof of that yet. If anything, the administration was not “political” enough — it overruled warnings that it would look bad for Obama to visit Solyndra if the company later went bust; believing in the company’s promise, he went anyway.
Our tendency to view the “political” as something separate from, rather than intrinsic to, the public sphere has side effects. For one thing, it contributes to the laughable distinction in our campaign finance laws between political action committees, which must disclose their donors, and affiliated nonprofit groups, which do not have to, as long as their attacks on candidates revolve around “issues,” not elections. But of course, the nonprofits’ issue ads are no less “political” than the PACs’ explicitly campaign-oriented ones.
But the biggest cost of our indiscriminate disparagement of all things “political” is its potential to further alienate Americans from a process they already have all too much reason to abandon. My time on the campaign trail this season has reminded me that there are few things more disheartening than meeting some of the countless people who have given up on politics — more often than not, people who have a major stake in the outcome. They spit the words out — “It’s all just politics” — with a disgusted wave, as if there were no connections between what they see happening in Washington and their lives, when there are in fact so many. And who can blame them, when they hear the word spoken with the same disgust by the practitioners in the field?
In Iowa for the caucuses last month, I met a 50-something woman who makes $7.85 an hour working the 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift unloading trucks at a Wal-Mart. After losing a previous job in 2008, she lost her home to foreclosure and now lives in her son’s small house. She voted for Obama last time around but has no intention of voting this November. She’s too discouraged by politics. “I hate the bickering and the squabbling,” she told me. “Politics doesn’t matter. It isn’t based on the people, it’s based on the Electoral College. What’s gonna be is gonna be.”
Well, not exactly. And the more people like her turn away from “playing politics,” the more those games are going to be won by people who don’t have her interests in mind.
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic.