Politics Grip Us

To the men and women who inspired this post. May your victories be triumphant and your defeats devastating.

The established academic definition of the word Politics was put forth by Harold Dwight Lasswell. Laswell was a 20th Century political scientist and he defined politics as a struggle for power that ultimately decided “Who Gets What, When, How.” That is a serviceable meaning that gives understanding to the word in its academic form. Yet, somehow I doubt that is what turns people on to politics. In fact, if it were so, if that were the story, many would fail to pay attention. “Who Gets What, When, How” is decided in chambers and behind doors. Politics is a spectator’s sport made for the open field. Power to decide is only the final ends to a much bigger and fascinating story that is routinely played out. Mr. Lasswell’s and those like him missed it altogether. Scientifically sterile, they rushed for a diagnosis and never even glanced at the patient. Lasswell’s dictum severs the story from its true source.

Politics it is just that: A story. Politics is a human story. It is about people — their ambitions, desires, visions, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and vulnerabilities. Since it is a contest of the strong willed and the dynamic kind, naturally only the ambitious enter this arena. It is not made for the timid and even its most accomplished contestants will emerge with scars. That is why some unlikely friendships have emerged from inside politics. They see their lot as a fraternity. They hold a sort of boxer’s respect for one another. And rightly so, it takes a person with a unique constitution to compete in such a personal fashion. They are gladiators for our amusement and entertainment. They live to enter that arena, not government. Government is a job. Politics is a behavior. Government is boring. Politics is anything but boring.

Indeed, politics in action is, in itself, an intricate and unfolding plot loaded with a cast of characters. A whirlwind of personalities, strategies, and machinations grip us during campaign season. It is to no one’s doubt that politics has gotten professional. Million dollar staffs comprised of policy wonks and personal handlers’ create campaigns that are tightly wound cocoons. It is a scientific system of damage control. These hired guns advise candidates from everything on what to wear, what to eat while in public, and what opinion to give on certain questions. Consider, if you will, a highly centralized system of preventive maintenance. This has in time turned many people off as it seems to render candidates as phonies. Much like, I suspect, boxing fans reacted when padded gloves were introduced. On the other hand, it thickens the plot for spectators to enjoy. We stay gripped and watch as each tiny layer is peeled off one by one. We wait. Then the facade crashes down exposing a frail and empty individual. They fail the test and in many cases lose our respect. Or the wonderful implosion happens. Sometimes it is so terrifically catastrophic they vanish into thin air. We love these parts of the plot almost as much as we enjoy seeing “our” guy win. Politics has always been a reality show long before there was ever such a genre.

As I said, it is a story about people. We cheer on our candidates as much as we do our favorite athletes. National polls become our pennant races. Election night becomes our super bowl. We give them more of our money than we do to charities and churches. We put our trusts and pin our hopes upon a single, solitary person. And sometimes we get it right. When we do, we create an image and an idea of how this person really and truly is or was. So much to the point that individual is hardly that at all, an individual; he or she lives on as an immortal who will define a particular time in history for us. We do this with having never met them. In fact, rarely are we ever within fewer of a hundred miles of them. In other cases, a hundred years may separate us. So to keep them close to us, we ensure they live on in new form of existence as a doctrine, a holiday, a noun, an airport or an aircraft carrier.

Politics is much more than a method to power. It has several parts to its whole. Politics is a grand stage, an open cathedral, used to observe humanity. It is the microscope that reveals who we are. Politics is celebrity. Politics is civilized brutality. Politics is a contest. That is why it never fails to bring out an element of primal existence deep, yet, always simmering, within us. It has the power to both unite and separate. It will never be settled, nor tamed. It is a story about humanity.

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