The derogatory use of the word “political”

August 31, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yesterday one of the main headlines in the news was that Cheney called Obama’s CIA probe “political.”  The word “political” was almost always included in the headline wherever the story appeared making it clear that the media understood Cheney as accusing Obama of acting inappropriately by describing his actions this way.

Why shouldn’t an official who is constitutionally tasked with enforcing the law feel politically motivated to enforce the law?  You would think that having those political beliefs would be part of the job description.

Of course, that wasn’t (I think) really what Cheney meant to convey by calling Obama “political” at all.  He wasn’t referring to Obama’s political beliefs, rather he was suggsting that Obama was using it to ‘political advantage.’  Not to accomplish his stated aims, but for the sake of consolidating or preserving his political power for its own sake.

How ridiculous is it that in the U.S. the term “political” has come to mean not beliefs about how society ought to be and what policies government should pursue, but rather the activity of gaining prestige and capacity in the political area, in spite of your social and policy beliefs.  When someone in the U.S. calls something “very political” in the context of government actors, they don’t mean it’s “very strongly principled” or “very strongly opinionated,” they mean just the opposite, that it is very precisely designed to to strategically weigh the way powerful political actors will respond to it in order to maximize advantage.

National elections in America are the most ‘political’ of all in that with few exceptions and almost universally during primaries, in that all ‘politically viable’ candidates arrive at policies that are nearly functionally equivalent to their opponents.  They rarely debate matters of principle, at least those that they could and would actually affect change on if elected, or really debate what their goals ought to be meaningfully. Clinton and Obama’s 2008 election platforms were not substantively different, and that has been true of the leading democratic contenders as far as I can remember.  It is about personality and essentially non-political characteristics of the candidate: the real debate is not over what should be done but who should get the honor and responsibility to do it.

I think its really a shame that this is what ‘politics’ has been reduced to in the United States.  Instead of seeking office to gain the ability to pursue a specific political objective, politicians when acting ‘politically’ adapt their political objectives to gain the ability to seek and maintain office.  This is ‘politics’ depoliticized and it reduces the extent to which the acts of an elected legislature or executive can be to meaningfully express any political will of people.

For the record, this particular comment of Cheney’s was one of his very few that I agree with, but for other reasons.  If Obama wasn’t acting for strategic advantage, and instead only to fulfill his responsibility, he would as he should, call for a full investigation of everyone who participated in torture, at any level, strip them of any government immunities or protections, and put them on trial for their crimes against humanity.



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