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Peeling the Political Onion


I’m wondering if you are finding the state of politics as confusing as I do. Maybe you have it all figured out, but I sure don’t. It’s a lot like peeling an onion, but only sort of. When peeling an onion, I take off one layer and am not surprised that the next level is still an onion. There is not much to be confused about as I peel away to the core. The onion is still an onion.

When peeling away the layers of politics, I suppose it’s all still politics. I can’t figure much else. On the surface, we have the Repubs and the Demos. As best I can tell, the Repubs want as little government and government interference as possible. Since they haven’t always been in charge, government has gotten out of hand, from their perspective. The best they can do is to refuse to support any new regulations or government funded services and eliminate or at least limit as many existing regulations and services as they can.

The Demos Believe that the Repubs are wrong. They believe that government is here to make sure that each of us has a fair shot at health, safety and general well being. Government is the nation’s care taker. To that end, regulation and government funded services are essential for the success of the nation.

When I was in junior high, we played a game called jungle football in the school gym — Two teams: shirts and skins of course. The gym teacher would toss a football toward the middle of the court. The goal was to make a “basket” with the football at your team’s end of the court. After a “basket,” whichever team came away with the football kept it and tried to score. As best I recall, there were no rules other than “hitting” or “kicking” another player was not allowed and intentionally hurting someone would get you ejected from the game. It was pretty much minimal government at its best. It was definitely a Repubs kind of game.

I was also in the junior high band. Now that was a different deal altogether. With jungle football, everyone played, but only some of us ran to the football, ready to mix it up. The only participation rule was that you had to at least stay on the court. In the band, everyone had an instrument and was expected to play it, no matter how well or how badly. Being in the band was enough to assure participation. There were a lot of rules and regulations, and everyone was expected to cooperate in ways that enabled all band members to be successful. The guiding principle was the common good. Band was more of a Demo kind of experience.

It seems important to point out that Repubs and Demos are all real people, much like the rest of us. They just have different and often conflicting perspectives, points of view, value sets and expectations for government and for the purpose and role of government in our lives. There are of course zealots in both camps, but I suspect most of us don’t give much thought to it one way or the other most of the time. If we lean more toward self reliance and think things are going well for us, and for the folks we hang around with, we likely edge toward the Repubs. If we lean more toward feeling anxious about our situation and that of the people we identify with and worry about, we likely edge more toward the Demos. In that sense, politics is always personal.

Once we peel away that top level of the political onion though, the nature of politics and politicians changes rather dramatically. We learn that politics has less to do with philosophy and the nature and purpose of government than with gaining enough control and influence to individually protect and support a baffling array of interests and priorities. Since this is far from a zero sum game, some win but most fair less well.

Peel down another layer and we discover that the elected politicians who appear to be the key actors in the political arena are mostly the public face of a shifting collective of interests and priorities scrambling for enough control and influence to assure the success of their individual political agendas. Although we seldom learn about the deals, compromises, trades, and jockeying for advantage that are part and parcel to politics as usual, the Senators and Representatives are but the visible tip of the political machinery. It likely comes as no surprise that they are neither autonomous nor independent. They are always beholden to those who helped them get elected and deferential to those who will help them get reelected, for they are the real players.

As we continue peeling away layers of the political onion, getting closer to the political core, it becomes clearer that politicians and their brokers want us to believe that they are committed to playing in the band known as Congress. Their goal is to make recognizable political music. Would that it were true. What we find is presumably reasonable and rational adults playing jungle football and playing it with intensity and enthusiasm. The difference between junior high and today’s politics is that there is no gym teacher to set the rules and to make sure no one hits, kicks or intentionally hurts another player.

What do we learn from peeling the political onion? For starters, if we thought politics works like we were taught in school, it doesn’t. In principle it does, but principle has little to do with real politics and politicians. With that myth out of the way, we can see if there is anything there that normal people like us can actually understand.

I think most politicians are pro national defense. They support a strong military. There is some disagreement about how much that should cost, but at the bottom line, they are ready to pay the bill, whatever it costs.

Most politicians want and support a strong, growing economy. Along with benefiting most everyone, it’s also the key to being able to pay for a strong military and whatever is seen as a priority for government. At the bottom line, a strong economy most benefits those with the most economic assets and resources who are also the people and companies most able to help politicians get elected and reelected.

When we move beyond a strong economy and solid national defense though, the political picture is much less clear. I think the most significant difference down in the trenches between the Repubs and the Demos is how central fueling the economic engine is or should be. For the Repubs, every “basket” they make in the jungle football game also known as politics needs to advance the growth and well being of business. For the Demos, every “basket” that they make needs to support and assure the success and long term well being of everyone, with emphasis on those who are less able to assure their own success and long term well being. The idea is that people’s welfare and long term well being should not be completely tied to the level of their economic success.

The Repubs say, “We are the government and we are here to take care of business.” The Demos say, “We are the government and we are here to take care of you, as needed.” No, it’s not nearly that simple, but disagreement about the priority that should be given to the economic good versus the social good is certainly central.

As you likely see, peeling the political onion is not as instructive as I had hoped. Even so, there are lessons to be considered. Perhaps the most significant of these is that the reality of politics is nothing like we might have thought. It seems that it’s mostly a game of grope and grab. At a minimum, it’s not a sport for ladies and gentlemen. Rather, it’s tailor-made for those best suited to playing jungle football, with few if any rules.

I suspect some wise elder has already pointed out that politics is where normally civil, reasonable and rational men and women with a fair measure of personal integrity transform into politicians. That by itself is a sharp departure from the lessons we were taught in civics class. We weren’t told that the candidate we elect is not the politician we get.

The deception is compounded when politicians necessarily become Repubs or Demos. He or she is quickly assimilated into the “Party.” As a junior member of the tripe, the new politician is expected to be faithful, loyal and subordinate to the authority and experience of the tribal elders. It’s not shirts and skins anymore. Rather, it’s Repubs and Demos in this round of jungle football, and I suspect that there are those on the sidelines calling the plays, although they don’t show themselves so they might be held accountable.

It would be easy to drift away into the realm of conspiracy and secret power groups controlling the government, but I doubt that any single group or individual could gain enough power to control the political process. It is far too chaotic and apparently random for that. Even so, I do suspect that the real strings of government are being pulled by far fewer people and groups than we might believe. Most of us will never know who they are, but we can be assured that our politicians do indeed know who they are and take care not to cross them.

For good or not, peeling the political onion also needs to include the President and the Judges of the Supreme Court along with the bureaucrats controlling the machinery of government. The only point here is that they too are also politicians to their core. Perhaps that is enough said. When we peel away the political onion, we may be left with no more and no less than politicians playing jungle football for the home team, red or blue, for whichever tribe has captured their allegiance.