Politics is a broad term. It is often used to describe everything from being an asshole on the internet to being a statesman and nation founder. It is denigrated and revered, usually at the same time. This post is my attempt to create some clarity around the question: what is politics? I do not want to give a hackneyed definition, such as a litany of the term’s historical development or a cross-reference of modern usages of the term. What I want to do is identify and explore the different ways people talk about politics, so that we can perhaps begin to understand when we are talking about different things that all fit loosely under the umbrella of politics.
To this end, I conceive of four approaches to politics that I feel need to be sketched out. Listing them from the most abstract to the most concrete, we have: “the political”, “political architecture”, “politics”, and finally “realpolitik”. The four share a concern for group identity, shared ideology, group direction, shared responsibility, and group action. But each takes a particular concern as paramount. I should be understood that all four of these ways of talking about politics are necessary at particular times and all are vital to a culture of flourishing political debate. All four must see their particular concerns addressed in order for a society to resolve an issue. To solve a political problem in three of the four ways is not to solve it at all. Hopefully, this will be clearer after I introduce the differences between them in greater detail.
By far the most abstract is a sort of metaphysics of politics; the concept of the political as Carl Schmitt saw it. Its primary focus is on how to create and maintain group unity. Imagine a Maslowian hierarchy of political needs, the political is the base. It is the formation of a group, who counts as its members, who are responsible for its duties, who are the beneficiaries of its privileges, but most importantly can the group maintain itself in its given formation? i.e. is it able to cohere? Schmitt elaborated the primary action of the political as determining the friend/enemy distinction. It is the establishment of an “us” by the identification of a “them” which we are not and do not like. Us and those like us, are friends and those unlike us are enemies. This relationship is primary and will determine how we treat others in our sphere of influence.
For example, what is the role of poor blacks in the USA? Are they really citizens? Do we (white America) have an obligation to treat them as citizens, that is to treat them just like us? Are they accretions upon the body politic? Enemies, who may be used for labor and discarded? What we say and what we do will be partially determined by whether or not we really consider them just like us?
Schmitt’s distinction is but one way to affect unity, others included shared economic benefit, shared culture/language, simple homeostasis, and—on small scales—kinship (and possibility others). There are many ways group identity can form and dissolve, but at the base, without group identity, there are no more political questions to even ask. To call a group of people a society, of any kind, is to assume the kind of political connection discussed under the concept of the political.
The second most abstract topic of political discussion is what I have termed political architecture; which we might define as the organization and arrangement of power structures and institutions in a given society. The focus of political architecture is largely on how to effectively and efficiently deploy the power that comes from “group effort”. The many battles over the “rationality” of politics, from Carl Schmitt to Michael Oakeshott, fall under this category. Political architecture deals in terms of democracy, monarchy, aristocracy, and anarchy. Its terms are those of organization and arrangement, law and principle, government and property. As well as terms of design, such as the separation of powers, the nature of sovereignty, how to affect the popular will, and much more. This is the realm of order, harmony, stability, and security.
By far the most important question of political architecture is striking the balance between liberty and equality. Always with an eye to the necessity of maintaining group cohesion, a political architecture cannot go too far afield in either direction. We cannot even conceive of a polity where there are but one abusive tyrant and a whole mightly population of abused subjects. This is because such an arrangement is unstable, it will tip over into chaos, despite the many horrors chaos brings.
The goal of political architecture is to establish the minimum number of institutions to effect relative and fair equality. The “minimum number” preserves freedom, while the institutions protect the equality vital to group cohesion. All the grand schemes of political arrangement and political economy are attempts to find the balance in whatever situation a group of people happens to find themselves. It is important to note that, no one solution is right for all situations and so political arrangments and political economies, to remain stable would change with the situation.
The third most abstract is what we could call politics proper, i.e. the traditional idea of politics, as it was held by the ancients. This type of politics deals with the human condition, the current situation, economic need, justice, balancing the needs of the people, and much, much more. The primary focus in standard politics is deciding where to direct our group resources and energy and when, where, how, and—most importantly—why to use the power of group unity, including the institutions that harness and focus that power. This includes the creation and enforcement of policy, the allocation of resources, declaring and fighting wars, and the settlement of inter-member disputes. It always has an eye towards the maintenance of unity, but its concerns are particular and practical, unlike the general and theoretical concerns of political architecture.
The least abstract, or most “real” approach to politics, goes by the label realpolitik. This approach focuses on the effective use of the existing power structures to achieve desired ends among the rival choices of politics proper. This is the aspect of politics that is the most disreputable and deals with the strategies of sub-unities or factions to attain control of the power of group effort and use it to better their own situation. The strategic maneuvering of realpolitik is limited only by the prevailing political architecture and the constant pressure to retain group unity. When unity fails, it’s always factional strife behind the dissolution.
The goal of realpolitik is managing logistics. How do we actually get the job done? The proverb of the mice who decided to hang a bell around the cat’s neck but cannot decide on who will attempt the feat is a question of realpolitik. The best-laid plans of a presidential candidate mean nothing if they lose the election. Winning elections then are just as important as making decisions, if that is what the political architecture calls for. This, of course, brings up the ugly business of gaming politics: gerrymandering, suppressing votes or buying them, and much, much more. This also includes the political and economic viability of enforcing the ideals and decisions of the other forms of political conversation.
All four approaches impact others and affect them in particular and limited ways. Some can be used to delimit and control others to some extent, but all four are always present and necessary in every polity. There is a strong relationship between the political and politics proper, and between political architecture and realpolitik. The former pair creates unity and maintains it in a real, concrete way. The latter pair prevents abuse of unity while managing to get needs met and actions accomplished.
The political and political architecture constitutes the realm of political theory or political philosophy, as they form the primary assumptions upon which all other political decisions are based. These two deal with the possible and the impossible. Politics and realpolitik are better informed by political science as they deal in the observable world of the probable and the improbable. Let me reiterate that there is no conflict between these aspects, merely different goals.
Beyond all four aspects lies the realm of ethics, in two distinct senses. First as virtue ethics, which instills in the individual the skills and abilities to get along well in a given political arrangement and culture, and then pure ethics, including the ethics of care, which hope to determine individual actions about what is to be done in the concrete situation. Ethics are not politics, but they do relate to it because they form the preconditions and boundaries of politics. Ethics is to politics as wood is to a table. A table is made from some substance, but the essential “tableness” of the table has nothing to do with which particular substance that it is formed from. Ethics then can disagree with our politics, that is the two can be in discord so that realities do not match ideals, or they may try to agree with political consideration so that either the individual or the polity itself must be changed into harmony. This is because all forms of ethics deal with the individual and politics deal with groups.