|My gradual discovery of the "unimportance" of politics began when I was an undergraduate at Willamette University.
Political science professor Theodore Shay told us that Republicans could win elections in Portland, a Democratic stronghold, only if telephone service could be knocked out on election day.
This was before mail voting came to Oregon. Shay's prediction assumed that Portland's outnumbered Republicans would turn out to vote anyway, but that many Democrats would not vote unless poll-watchers phoned them a reminder.
Back then, I was an enthusiastic Republican and thought knocking out the Portland telephone exchange was a great idea! And I devised a simple way to do exactly that. (I am not revealing it here in the unlikely case that the idea would still work with today's phone technology!)
My enthusiasm vanished, however, when I considered the side effects of turning off all telephone calls. People whose houses caught fire couldn't call the fire department. People who suffered a heart attack or an accident couldn't summon an ambulance. Suddenly a Republican victory seemed a lot less important.
This was just a beginning. As a student, and later as a professor of political science, it took me years fully to realize the dangers of exaggerating the importance of politics. And by "politics" I do not just mean partisan (Republican versus Democrat) politics, but politics in the broader sense of decisions about how government ought to be organized and act.
After all, I considered politics in this broader sense important enough to devote my professional life to its study.
Most people pay too little attention to public policy questions, not too much. But for a small minority of people, politics is at the "core of their existence" (as Marxist Herbert Marcuse put it) — they eat, breath, and sleep politics. According to the Chinese Communist revolutionary, Mao Tse-Tung, "Not having a correct political outlook is like having no soul."
Exaggerating the importance of politics, fanatical minorities commit horrible atrocities. They falsely think they can bring heaven on earth. Exaggerated benefits outweigh any possible costs of getting them.
Thus we see millions slaughtered by Communists, by Nazis, by religious extremists with a political agenda (the Inquisition, Zionists, Islamists). We see car bombs, shot-down airliners, the 9/11 attacks, Gulag Archipelagos, Holocausts. Today's newscasts and papers are full of these atrocities: Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan.
To restrain fanatics who grossly overestimate the importance of politics, it would help if the vast majority of people who now pay little attention to the subject would spend an hour a week — better, an hour a day — informing themselves and learning how to think sensibly about politics.
Actually thinking about politics? What a radical idea!
This would protect people from manipulation by fanatics as well as by economic interests. It would help them do their own thinking instead of mouthing platitudes fed to them by demagogues.
It would help them to know which side their bread is buttered on and to vote and act intelligently. After all, a few fanatics by themselves cannot cause much trouble. They need help from the multitudes they stir up.
Alfred Lord Tennyson may have exaggerated the importance of politics in his 1835 poem "Locksley Hall," but he made a very important point when he hoped for a future when:
"The war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle flags were furl'd
in the Parliament of men, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law."
Paradoxically, for the "common sense of most" to prevail over political fanatics of all types, it will be necessary for many people to take more of an interest in politics.
(For an extended discussion of the relative unimportance of politics: Chapter 17 of my 1981 college textbook.)
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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