Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Politics as the Pursuit of Power

Politics as the Pursuit of Power
Peter Schultz

            It is difficult to understand how central the pursuit of power is for politicians in part because they come to us disguised as problem solvers or policy makers. But that these are just disguises is suggested by examining how politicians act.

            For this purpose, I want to unpack some passages from Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup, a comprehensive analysis of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. The following quote concerns John Dean’s decision to meet with the prosecutors dealing with the trial of the Watergate burglars, a decision that Dean promised would “deliver the P.”, that is, that would reveal Nixon as a coconspirator in the Watergate mess.

            “Dean’s plan for his testimony was . . . brilliant . . .. Dean would say that he had been complicitous, and paint a picture of how he had been enmeshed in the conspiracy because he was so ambitious and eager to please.” [273]

            Note, first, that Dean presents himself as being seduced into his criminality, as “enmeshed in the conspiracy,” almost against his will. But, second, note that Dean does not claim that he was seduced by the conspiracy itself, by its illegality, or by its criminality. That is, Dean became “enmeshed in the conspiracy;” he did not embrace the conspiracy, which was and is clearly not true. Dean initiated the Watergate cover up, meaning he chose to act conspiratorially, chose to act illegally and did so in order to maintain and even fortify his power in the White House.

            Dean’s presentation of himself is “brilliant” because he played all the right political notes, as it were. Decent people, politicians react to events, they seek solutions to problems. If they go astray as it were, then we want to believe that they were led astray by, say, in Dean’s case ambition or an eagerness to please. Committing illegal or criminal acts, or acting covertly have no intrinsic appeal in and of themselves. Decent people, politicians make mistakes; they do not embrace conspiracies, act conspiratorially, act covertly in order to display, acquire, or maintain their power. But acting illegally or conspiratorially is appealing, even seductive, because such acts are displays of power, and serve to confirm a conspirator’s, a politician’s power. Dean did not become enmeshed in the Watergate conspiracy. Rather, he created it, embraced it and he did so because it was how he could display and maintain his power. That it involved him in illegalities or crimes was not a deterrent at all. In fact, that the cover up involved illegalities and crimes made it more attractive to Dean, not less. At least as long ago as Augustine’s Confessions, the appeal of illegal or criminal acts should have been clear.

            There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of having and displaying power, especially in those we call politicians. So, for example, we prefer to think that our politicians, like John Dean during Watergate, became enmeshed in Vietnam, were drawn into what was called the quagmire of Vietnam. They made “mistakes,” they didn’t want to make war there, but apparently they couldn’t resist or made misstep after misstep until it was too late to get out. It’s all so very mysterious, isn’t it? But again it is pretty clear that LBJ, for example, embraced the war in Vietnam and did so as a way of displaying US power and, hence, his own power as well. He wasn’t going to be the first American president to lose a war, by golly! Certainly many others also embraced that war, although they usually hid their enthusiasm for the war behind arguments for its necessity, e.g., to prevent those alleged “dominoes,” the nations of Southeast Asia, from falling over and becoming communist overnight, as it were. That they enjoyed having and displaying their power is rarely considered as a possibility.

            It should be understood that illegal acts, conspiratorial acts are, in fact, seductive and they are as displays of power, even as displays of power exercised righteously. So, even John Dean, despite having created and executed a conspiracy that he managed to trick Nixon and other men to buy into by means of lies and deceit, could in the end come to believe that he had acted righteously by dethroning someone he said and still says was “evil.” I am not one to praise or even defend Richard Nixon. But to consider John Dean and his actions righteous is to mythologize him and Watergate.

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