Politics v. Policy . . . and Politics

The breaking news about Cuba is electrifying: the last vestiges of the (old) Cold War may finally be starting to thaw.

(I was born in the late ’60s so, as far as my own experience is concerned, the U.S. and Cuba have always been at odds.)

It’s notable to me that little more than an hour passed between the first announcement of the breakthrough and the appearance of this in The New York Times online:

U.S.-Cuba Shift May Change Political Landscape, Too

(The original headline under which the article appeared was: “Obama Adds a Wild Card to the ’16 Political Deck”.)

As often happens, I found this too-quick turn toward presidential politicking to be more than a little grating.

It’s unfortunate that the language of public life has become so impoverished that “politics” generally  means only “strategic maneuvering to get and hold power, and to use it for one’s own interests.” For news media, “political coverage” and “political analysis” are little more than a matter of book-making on whatever horse race is coming up next.

This is quite a come-down from the older meaning of the term, as when Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, describes politics as “the master science of the good.”

In Politics – literally “that which has to do with the City” – Aristotle combines what we would call political philosophy and political science, offering observations on how a City ought to be constituted and how a City can be made to function effectively. He also mixes in a bit of policy analysis, making substantive suggestions as to the content of certain policies – regarding city planning, for example, or marriage and reproduction – that are conducive to a well-governed City.

I suppose it would be futile to attempt to resuscitate the older and broader meaning of politics, but I would say that there are at least four separate political questions about the shift in U.S.-Cuba relations.

  1. Politics (as per political philosophy): Does the administration have the legitimate authority to make decisions about the relationship between the U.S. (and individual Americans) and Cuba (and individual Cubans)? Whence comes that authority?
  2. Policy Evaluation (in the normative sense): Is the existing policy both right and good? Does it serve the ends of justice, human dignity, and human well-being? Does the new policy do more or less to secure those ends?
  3. Policy Process (as per descriptive political science): How is the authority of the government of the United States structured so as to make it more or less difficult to make a change like the one proposed? How, in fact, did this decision come about, and by what means will it be put into effect?
  4. Politics (as per contemporary news media): How will this play with the [insert ideological affiliation here] base? How will this affect [insert prospective candidate here]’s strategic calculations in [insert year of upcoming major election here]?

Speaking for myself, I would like to see a lot more of 1 and 2 in media coverage of decisions like this one, and a lot less of 4.

In fact, I’ve been wondering about the degree to which the almost obsessive focus on 4 in the news may be driving some of the cynicism and detachment of American voters.

That may be a topic for a later post.

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