A simple defense of a bad word.

In referring to one of the most reported and debated issues in foreign policy of our times (the Iranian nuclear program), the president of one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the modern world, and his secretary of state, had a clear message to the other elected body of the United States:

“Now is not the time for politics”

It isn’t? What is it then, time for tea?

The US president actually uses this expression often. What we’re supposed to understand is that it is not the time for cynical manipulations of the political process for reasons of personal interest and power. (is there ever a time for that then?). The destruction of the real meaning of politics has serious negative impact, it undermines the democratic process, and it leaves room for lack of oversight and abuse of power.

Two other examples, an anecdotal one, and a large-scale one:

Sometime ago I was discussing the UK’s NHS with a friend. Her position was that there should be more individual freedom given to the patients: that they should be given information about doctors’ performance and then chose the doctor they prefer. For her, Individual freedom trumped the Hospital’s right to allocate doctors as it sees fit for better efficiency of total outcomes. Think what you will about what should be done, her’s was not an unreasonable thing to defend. Politics however, she complained, gets in the way and distracts people from doing [what seemed to my friend] an obviously correct thing to do. Well obviously, politics was what she was doing in wanting to decide the best principles on which to organize a public service, and in deciding what values should be prioritized (individual freedom or collective good). Politics was seen as an obstacle and distraction to what she wanted to do, and not what she was doing. I suspect many powerful figures feel the same: the democratic argument about what is of value and what should be done is an obstacle to what they want to be done.

This attitude towards politics can have big consequences: an example is the strange UK government entity called “The low pay commission” (LPC). The LPC is

 an independent body that advises the government about the National Minimum Wage. [They] submit a report to the government each February making recommendations on the future level of the minimum wage, and related matters.

Independent of what? They are certainly unelected and unaccountable to the public. “Recommendations” about the minimum wage, to achieve what end? Nowhere is this stated. Maybe the recommendations are about getting more total employment, or maybe they are aimed at more total wealth, maybe they are for whatever is better for business. Or maybe it’s tea again. The issue of what to pay our lowest paid workers is thus “depoliticized” and removed from debate. You can judge for yourself what goals will the LPC’s “recommendations” are likely serve. Unelected experts with little oversight will “recommend”, you sit and relax.

Politics is now frequently perceived as an obstacle to the common good, as a force against doing the right thing. More often than not the word is used as synonym of internal struggles for power, maneuvering behind the scenes,  cynically manipulate institutions etc.  I have started to take issue when people use the word “politics” to these objectionable practices. I say: «as someone who cares about the public good, I’d rather we don’t use that word with a negative connotation.»

This state of affairs is dangerous, and I suspect it is not accidentally that those in power perpetuate the negative connotation of politics (that we the public too readily accept). Indeed, every time an issue is further removed from the democratic process, the more assumptions about what matters get crystallized, and the harder for the public to change the way things work. The more things are assigned to “independent” experts, the less public scrutiny they get and the more easily they are subject to corrupting pressures. And so everytime something important is “depoliticized” it reduces our power to participate and influence decisions about the rules and institutions that govern our lives – you know…  politics.


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