American Politics 101: Persons, Policies, or Paradigms
It dawned on me recently, when thinking about an email I got from a really good friend who I have known since high school, that there are different ways of thinking about American politics. The friend wrote that she had noticed that I didn’t care for Hillary Clinton and, more generally, didn’t care for anybody in the political arena these days. She concluded, rightly, “It is hard to see where that goes.”
She was correct in her characterization of my opinion and in her question about where it left me or others, and it got me wondering just what it was I was doing. Am I just a cranky old man who doesn’t like anybody involved in politics these days? And, if so, where does such an attitude take or leave me? Hmm?
Then I realized that while my friend was correct in her summation of my attitude towards those involved in our political processes these days, she missed the reason or reasons underlying that attitude. And to see the reason[s], it is necessary to see that it is possible to think about our politics in at least three different ways: In terms of persons, in terms of policies, or in terms of paradigms.
If you focus on persons, as an awful lot of Americans do, then you will focus on, say, Trump versus Obama or Obama versus Bush. Who is the better person? Who made or is making a better president? Who is more or less trustful? And, more generally, why can’t we the people seem to elect the right people, those who will fix our allegedly broken political system?
If you focus on policies, again as an awful lot of Americans do, then you will focus on liberal policies versus conservative policies. Under this view, government and politics is or should be all about making and implementing certain policies, namely, those that will serve the national interest or the common good.
If you focus on paradigms, however, you are not so much interested in who gets elected or what policies get made as you are with the paradigm within which our political process plays out. For example, if you focus on the contention that we in the United States, in the pursuit of national greatness, have consented to the creation of a national security state resting on what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” then who gets elected or what policies they recommend or make is not of great importance because unless the paradigm is changed, the outcomes are going to be pretty much the same regardless of who is elected or what policies are made.
For example, Trump supporters like to say that he is a proponent of “small government” and that his efforts to limit the reach of the national government through deregulation are evidence of this agenda. But insofar as these efforts take place within and don’t challenge the legitimacy of our national security state, it can only be said that, at most, Trump favors smaller, not small, government. Moreover, so long as the established paradigm goes unchallenged, Trump’s “smaller government” will still be a pervasively powerful national government, able when it deems it necessary to invade our privacy in almost anyway it wishes. The fact of deregulation, which is what Trump endorses, does not undermine in itself the legitimacy of regulation and, so, the next president will be able to reinstate regulations that Trump trashed.
In fact, Trump’s own actions or proposed actions have illustrated this very phenomenon. He trashed a Democratic/Republican inspired regulation that allowed state governments to drug test certain categories of people who qualified for and received unemployment benefits, tests that previously had been illegal. However, now Trump is proposing that another such regulation be created, one that would be even broader, cover even more people, than the regulation he trashed. This is hardly a way to create “small” or even “smaller” government. And it puts the lie to Trump’s claim, more generally, that he is a proponent of “small” government. He isn’t and he could not be so long as he accepts the legitimacy and desirability of the national security state or the goal of “making America great again.” A great nation needs a great government and a great government will be, always and everywhere, a pervasively powerful government. To think otherwise is to be delusional.
It is fairly easy to see that the first two ways of viewing our politics serve to preserve the status quo because unless the underlying paradigm of our politics is challenged and changed, it won’t matter so much who gets elected or what policies are enacted. They will, willy nilly, serve the status quo. And those like Trump, who likes to think he is challenging that status quo, will in fact merely serve to reinforce it.