Last week, while getting my nightly dose of a discussion program, I heard a political scientist talk about her research via Facebook and other meeting places on the Internet. She claimed that the number of Likes, and their changes over time, indicated the rise and fall of politicians.
Her presentation was part of a larger claim that the Internet and its social sites were the new platform of politics.
Again maybe, but with some doubts.
Next on my TV was a clip showing a politician at a campaign meeting. Smiles all around, lots of patting shoulders, a few hugs, all meant to maximize the feeling of closeness. A skilled perform could shake one hand while winking at someone else, and maybe use the second hand to touch a third.
Now some are doing it on Facebook, Tweeter, mass e-mailings, and who knows what else.
It looks to me like the same old stuff, repackaged to take advantage of new technology.
Is it any more influential, given the capacity to reach more people quickly and easily?
That's a larger question, which brings this Professor of Political Science and Public Administration (my formal title since 1975) back to the importance of government over politics.
We should not go too far in minimizing the role of politics. It's great sport, and the best way of choosing those who will be at the top of government.
However, we shouldn't overlook points of progress, including the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers, and now the European Union to limit the damage that individual politicians can do to the rest of us.
The lines I like best come from James Madison and Federalist #51, with apologies due to those bothered by sexist verbiage.
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
We can summarize it all with "separation of powers and checks and balances." They exist in all civilized governments, even while they differ in detail from one country to another. The weights of parliaments, government coalitions, courts, government auditors, mass media, and the freedom of individuals and interest groups to express themselves serve to keep politicians within conventional boundaries. Those boundaries also vary from one setting to another. Some tolerate behavior that is louder and nastier than what is acceptable elsewhere.
It's all meant to keep the Hitlers and other psychopaths out of government. The German catastrophe shows that existing tools don't always work, but Germany and the rest of western Europe are much better places since World War II.
Lesser nuts sometimes slip through, but can't do much harm.
Richard Nixon is one example. The recordings that reflected his own paranoia reveal a man dealing with several devils. However, he got his comeuppance due to the minor infraction of Watergate. And along the way he did the good things of finding America's way out of Vietnam and into China.
Middle Easterners also think that Barack Obama was a mistake. He jumped from almost nothing to the presidency, contributed to Arab Spring and the chaos with us since then, and pushed Israelis and Palestinians to damage themselves via a peace process both side knew to be fruitless from its beginning. Obama's comeuppance came in the mid-term elections, but he hasn't been all bad. To his credit is Obamacare, the opening to Cuba, and efforts to deal with illegal immigrants. All are sensitive and bring on the hyperbole of critics, and may well be imperfect. However, each reflects serious problems in American society, and Obama's efforts to get some of the garbage off the table. The problems with Obamacare are more indicative of Americans' fascination with individual freedom, and the weight of profit making insurance companies and other participants in health care, than one detail or another that got its way into the legislation.
There are no guarantees in the messy world of politics. Now it is the social networks that compete with the glad handing of campaign meetings. However, the vast majority of what happens comes out of offices working according to legislation, administrative rules, and court decisions accumulated over the years.
It ain't perfect. Israel is currently going through a wave of revelations coming from the burgeoning field of quasi-government organizations. Here and elsewhere this is the Wild West of government, where there are tons of regulations but many of them are ignored in order to realize the elusive values of creativity and flexibility. Its a fertile field for politicians with sticky hands.
For some observers, we are seeing once again that corruption is a synonym for politics. That may be unfair, or at least an exaggeration.
Most of us are living better and more secure than earlier generations. We may enjoy or avoid the sparing of politicians in one forum or another.
Politics can be fun, but the greater weight is government. Occasionally a politician makes a real contribution to government, but it is hard to be certain who will do what in the blather of social networks or the noise of political gatherings.