So, I’ve started a Political Science degree, one which I doubt I’ll ever complete, it’s primarily a dabble that dovetails into an area of interest. Step one, POLSC101, is an intro, laying out the basics, n straight away I’m calling bollox to it all. Pondering ahead to the end of this journey, it feels like the hefty goal of changing my thinking over to academic thought, aligned with the field of political science, may be a bridge too far. Seems I’m being tutored to accept groundwork theories which are never gonna jibe with my understanding of the world, it goes a little something like this…
The opening task calls upon me to consider the three forms of leadership at the presidential level—hard power, soft power, and smart power. The first is essentially militarism; think Dwight D. Eisenhower, former supreme commander of the Allied Forces in WW2, ‘Do it my way, that’s an order’. The second being a subtle persuasive approach that came to life in the ‘80s with the neoconservative era. (Coincidentally, by this time television was mesmerising the planet, communication modes were evolving, so leaders needed to sugar-coat the message to prevent being seen as arseholes in the minds of the masses.) Then, ‘smart power’, a touchy-feely messaging designed to win hearts, n minds supposedly, though already I suspect this classification is just the political science fraternity touching themselves and claiming to have added value to the process.
Reflecting upon these forms, the first question for me is: what actual power does a president have? From the shit-show that is American politics, it seems the obvious answer is, increasingly little. Somewhere between a figurehead and a pawn, except with a briefcase full of nuclear launch codes. He is the product of the information he is served, a victim of his advisers, and the servant of those who ratify his actions. And all of this, assuming said president is of good character(?).
My beginner’s view of political science (PS) seems akin to a practice of loosely categorising and cataloguing an ongoing political catastrophe. Perhaps more like handing over the wheel of a cartoon car, variously configured, relative to the character of the president. That car is then sent out on the campaign trail, to negotiate the twists and turns, seemingly with scant possibility of fucking it up completely.
If this cartoon-car metaphor began life with the founding fathers, that would’ve been the silent movie era, Charlie Chaplin style; shot in a real car, with a heavy steel steering wheel, in contact with real earth. In that era a president needed to concentrate on the road, plus negotiate the role he was playing. That is to say, in antiquity, the president was both sovereign over state affairs, and more intimately in contact with ‘the people’.
By the post-world war era, animation was established, so the war hero presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, JFK), tho well-meaning and with both hands on the wheel, were running in front of a green screen, the road unfolding behind, so their only power as such being the content and control of screen images that were rolling along with them. The deep state was evolving, the cold war simmering, smoking was cool, and lobbying was learning its craft. Bureaucracy was beginning to bend toward its benefactors.
Once the ‘80s hit, the last vestige of reality itself was replaced when the Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, hit the stage. The establishment needed someone more convincing to play a role, someone with the guile to blend with the set, take seamless direction from the autocue, and to provide a convincing characterisation matching the rolling images. The president no longer needed to be a man true to his own conviction, but true to the convictions of a carefully curated script.
Then it really ramped up, production became more sophisticated, the animation more convincing, and accordingly, the need to manipulate the control levers all but disappeared. Clinton battled to fend off the nagging about his infidelity, but charmed his way thru it. G-Dubbya was hammered, lolling around in his sozzled stupor, bravely barking orders on cue. Obama deftly tilted the wheel left and right, however, the long rubber steering column was giving little feedback as to what was happening at the wheels, which were riding on marbles anyway. Trump brought in a GrandTheft Auto approach, eyes bulging and elbows out, knocking down anything he could just to score points. Then ‘Weekend at Bidens’ was propped up into position. Handed a steering wheel from a Mattel play-set that keeps his hands busy, the scenery simply whizzes past on all sides, leaving him to focus on climbing stairs and sniffing children. He has no idea where he’s off to, only that if he lets go of the wheel, the ride is over.
Back to the leadership categories of US politics over the past decades, you may say Trump was the hard (ball) power, Biden is soft (in the head) power, and Obama was mr-smarty-pants power. Bush was an imbecile. From day one it seemed he was reading from a script, and any thoughts of his own needed to be kept to a minimum or from public view. Similarly, Joe Biden, who at times is visibly lost, personifies the pantomime of US politics. If you like your democracy demented, physically unstable, and nepotistic, then he’s your guy! Any attempt to argue that a senile old simp is at any measure invigorating or dependable in a leadership role, defies the same logic which says men can have babies?!?
Just how much influence or effect one person has upon the political landscape is completely mysterious to me. It is difficult to decide how much of the image portrayed is connected to the reality of the individual, or whether any one leader makes significant change within the process. Obama is described politically as adopting the smart-power approach, but for mine, this is only as he is a more charismatic leader who could actually think, and speak, for himself. Unlike his predecessor G-Dubbya, who was thrust into action as a response to the Twin Towers event and went on to invade Iraq as a consequence (???), is by comparison viewed more as a hard-power leader, however this is primarily due to the fact he simply read the script slipped to him by the handlers. Obama attempted to steer US exceptionalism with a gentle hand, whereas the buffoon Bush just read his lines, then sauntered off to the golf course. Similarly, Trump too could be viewed as hard power, excepting that nobody in their right mind would carry out his bidding unless absolutely forced, so all his tough talk was greatly ignored by the establishment, acting as the buffer between a symbol of power, and power itself.
Then there is the manifestation of that power, particularly as the constant menace against global peace via military threat. While the world may be slowly waking up to the false pretences for which US wars and proxy wars are fought, i.e. a means to create revenue for the Military Industrial Complex in its circular crusade to support the value of the US dollar, little is done to prevent forever wars so it seems the figurehead of US power has very little sway over war programming. Perhaps, as some people think, the noob who wins the role of US President walks into office on day one to discover the platform and promises that landed his position suddenly smash against a harsh reality that he could not have foreseen. Personally, I do not buy that BS for an instant, choosing to believe there is an orchestration to the selection process, which returns a result carefully curated to fit within desired limits.
This leads to the question, is it the system or the individual? Is the power in the presidency, or is that position merely symbolism? The system itself is heralded as reverentially beholding to the one top dog, but is it really? And if it is not, where does the power lay? How is power delegated below the presidential level, how does it funnel back toward that central power position, and what influence do the next tiers of power have? If the president is the driver, what is the vehicle, who is shifting the gears, and how exactly does the rubber really meet the road? If the president is no Grand Poobah, who is exactly? How is the supreme force of symbolic power disseminated into the cogs of the machine which runs the most powerful nation on the planet?
Political science wants me to believe the buck stops with the president. The US political system prides itself as being the most robust, modern, and fair democracy on the planet. Americans have divine reverence for their democracy, their Constitution and its multi-layered governance structure, and love noting better than to bust out “thats pr’tected under the secon’ ammennndmennt”. However, protection provided by codified law also protects those who control the creation of law, which has become so granular over time that the amendments can be wielded contra to the Constitution itself. The very document that formalises democracy for the USA binds the nation in a mass of loophole legalese, a tangle which a president has no effect upon.
Spawned in the pre-communication era, it is already outdated from a tech vantage point, the proverbial dinosaur in a tar pit. Hefty, slow and overweight, every move to save it simply bogs it down further. A manual paper process devised for the pony express at a time when there were no such thing as political parties, seeking to distance itself from the tyranny of monarchical rule, the US voting system may have been adequate for the late 1700s but it could do with an update for the internet era. Whilst serving as a beacon to American patriotism, the wallowing totem will remain a hallowed backstop that serves US politics as both necklace and noose.
As with the founding document, so too is the animation of man in its application. Let’s consider three personality types: people who do stuff, people who talk about doing stuff, and people who legislate stuff (those who just stuff around don’t count here). Only the first type genuinely create value, the other two make their way by deriving value from the first. The talkers make advantage of the doers, then the legislators attempt to corral the havoc of false promises created by the talkers. The evolution of US political process parallels attempts of law to provide static restraints to a dynamic world, and in doing so, overriding the moral basis for its enactment. This is loosely mimicked in the US political system and the Constitution, whereby there is a president (the doer), the executive branch (talkers), and the legislative branch (lawyers). Supposedly, the president is meant to get shit done. He has to be the one to make things happen, as the other two branches will be constantly dragging down progress. If the president has supreme authority, he has to be the one to do stuff, yet it seems much of the Constitution (written to support that role) does more to restrain action than promote it.
The checks-and-balances approach was conjured up to prevent power concentration/abuse. Initiated with the best of intentions (to spread democratic power across multiple authorities) and assumed to be more sophisticated than the roots of democracy in ancient Rome (population of half a million, as opposed to nation of 335 million), this attempt at circumventing tyranny via distributed power mechanisms does little more than concentrate power within the system, as is glaringly obvious to any person bored enough to bother looking at it. And if one avenue is blocked, there is always another approach available, providing other means to achieve one’s goal, in an endless charade of paper shuffling to push one’s claims. Then on the flip side, that same multidirectional process provides escape hatches should one be caught out taking bribes from foreign nations, or with seaman carelessly spattered on an intern’s garment. For those on the inside, checks and balances become cloaks and barricades, tailored for the insider.
The chart above begins to demonstrate how complicated the whole system is and amusingly, paints a telling picture of a voter’s role in it all—light grey, at the bottom, barely noticeable, arrows directed away from the ‘Enfranchised’ with none pointing back, i.e. people may attempt to reach into the corridors of power, but there is no looking back from within. It may be a display of managerial complexity, but the severance from the will of the people is playing out in the modern arena as little more than the old-aged care of cronyism.
And all this without even touching on the blue/red triviality of bipartisan politics, which is nothing more than a divisive centrist distraction machine, untethered from effective governance while serving only to push profit-seeking agendas. For an outsider to the US system, there are no visible policy differences between the two main parties, just a menagerie of senile sellouts squabbling for media attention… yet somehow, voter loyalty to these charlatans raises blood pressure in every household. It’s strange.
Politics is sufficiently banal on its own, let alone putting it under a microscope and attempting to examine fine details. Perhaps I’m naive (very likely) but if there is any science to politics, the data is returning some pretty sketchy results. If the science was effective, a better politics would germinate via the experimental process. A better politics would be less oppressive, more cohesive, less visible, more flexible, just generally better. I’m struggling to spot signs of improvement across any part of the science of politics, perhaps as science too is now ratified by crony-consensus rather than confirmation.
At first encounter then, PS seems to me to be an attempt by bureaucracy to justify its own existence. If you take a boundless discipline like human free will, trace the cause and effect of voter/bureaucrat relationship via the mechanism of ballot box representation, formulate theory of knock-on effects to international affairs, then postulate the macro-social influence due to any process of democracy, your end point will find you at absolute zero correlation. It’s like studying the causal intent of a butterfly to beat its wings in anticipation of causing a hurricane halfway around the world. The question has no alignment with the outcome, and the chaos between start and end points have no connection whatsoever. My cynical hypothesis in this moment is that PS may just be a layer of BS, provided to smooth over vast excesses of spending, supplied to justify the wobbly PC BS of the average bureaucrat.
My contempt for democratic process is not exclusive to the US system, it applies equally to all other systems upon which it was based, and those derived from it. This is a complaint against lore as it butts up against law, i.e. moral tradition, codified legally, developed into a management template, then weaponised against the very traditions of its origin and its intended servants. Stultified democracies leverage law to facilitate political processes, rather than to serve democracy in the manner to which it was created, then wrap it up in academic jargon and label it science. Phooey!!
So, it looks like it will be straight Fs for me, this PS is off to a rough start. I would like to thank Saylor Academy for providing this learning opportunity, and hope they will not be too put out by my dismissive pushback on their syllabus, the assessment power remains with them after all :)
Either way, dis gonna be slowww!