A Definition of Politics

Image - Pieter Bruegel the Elder Children's Games

A lot of decisions are being made – how?

Here’s something I have been thinking about for a long time … since 1987 or so, almost 30 years: how to “define” politics. That is another way of saying, “how to think about what we mean when we say ‘politics.’”

Here’s my proposal: a helpful way to think about what we mean by “politics” is to define “politics” as “how people make decisions in groups.”

That is a little more involved that it might sound, depending on how you, the reader, hear the words “how people make decisions in groups,” because I understand it to involve a lot.

“How people make decisions in groups” involves at least the assumptions that go into, inform, govern that decision making process. It involves the social arrangements that have been put in place, and the way those arrangements are used by the people who are making the decision(s). It generally involves institutions, including institutions that have as their task the making of decisions; so, it further involves the assumptions and arrangements that go into the operation of those institutions. So, the shorthand “how people make decisions in groups” covers a lot of process that is embedded in the term “how,” but that can – at least in principle – always be unpacked and examined.

What I like about this way of thinking about politics is that it works for all the various usages of the term “politics” with which I’m familiar – that is, it works at every level of politics, from intimate to supra-national; it focuses attention on process rather than outcomes; it emphasizes that “politics” is an intrinsic aspect of humanity – human beings are homo politicus, and that isn’t necessarily something to be disparaged or despaired of, but it is something to be aware of and something to attend to in the task of character formation; it takes “power” – whatever we mean by that – into account, without reifying it or making it a thing that exists outside of a social context (I was tempted to say, “outside of a social context of deployment” because it sounded cool and would not be wrong, but then I thought – nah, that would be pretentious); it encourages thinkers about politics to focus less on “whether politics is going on” than on “whether this politics is legitimate or not” and on what the legitimation mechanisms in the situation are.

The idea of politics as “how people make decisions in groups” is similar to but not identical with Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics as “who gets what, when, where and why.” It’s similar to that way of thinking about politics because Lasswell’s definition, too, works for most of the various levels and usages of politics: “family politics,” “church politics,” “national politics,” “global politics,” etc. I think Lasswell’s definition works less well than this one for usages like “the politics of sexuality” or “the politics of disciplinary discourses,” where the usage of the term “politics” directs our attention to discourses and practices that work to channel or effect distributional outcomes. Those discourses and practices are often difficult to link to specific distributional outcomes. They operate instead to condition the processes by which distributional outcomes are brought about. (“White privilege” before it had a name might be an example of what I’m thinking about.) I don’t think that’s a big objection – I think it would be easy to bend or stretch Lasswell’s way of thinking about politics to reach those conversations.

I think the big difference between this way of thinking about politics and Lasswell’s is that it focuses the thinkers’ attention on the processual character of politics, and on the way people in groups perform and participate in the process of decision making. The outcomes – which is what Lasswell’s definition prioritizes – matter. But every effort to change specific outcomes has to enter, and presumably influence, the process(es) involved. Those processes are not fixed and immutable. They are a moving target – at least, they can be. A definition that focuses on the outcomes has a tendency to reify those processes, to make of them something that people wouldn’t think about changing, because they don’t normally change.

Particularly in small, local settings – families, churches, clubs, small businesses, non-profit organizations, groups like that – recognizing that there are lots of ways we could be making the decision before us, and that we have the ability (and, I would argue, the responsibility) to review and to modify those processes – can make the difference between working through conflicts in ways that produce good outcomes and bring the members of the group together, or resolving conflicts in ways that produce workable outcomes but alienate people, or engaging in practices that we come to think of as illegitimate that ultimately work to wreck the group, and we could all probably go on. So a way of thinking about “politics” that reminds us that it is something we are all frequently engaged in, and that focuses our attention on the processes in which we engage, and on the assumptions and arrangements that we bring to those processes, seems advantageous to me. That is, it seems like a way of thinking that improves our understanding of lots of everyday situations.

I’ve brought this way of thinking about politics up in a fair number of discussions over the years. Some people like it. Some people don’t. The complaints I’ve heard have had to do with what I consider to be advantages of this definition: that it implies that we are constantly engaging in political behavior, in every setting in which we are participating in a group, and it implies that we are always managing issues of power, by according and therefor augmenting and legitimating it, acknowledging and therefor augmenting but simultaneously delegitimating it, restricting it, distributing it, etc. etc.

One objection seemed to stem from the objector’s desire to restrict “politics” to impersonal contexts. “Politics” shouldn’t be a property of intimate personal contexts, it should be something that’s restricted to the Habermasian “machine” context. As I understood it – maybe too simplistically – the objection was something like “I don’t like to think of the family that way.”

My sense that it doesn’t matter what we want to do, we need to think of the family that way anyway, is probably based on my personal experience. I didn’t grow up in a conflict-free family, quite the opposite. Lessons in how to negotiate conflict, how to manage the parties to the conflict, how to protect one’s individual interests and sometimes the interests of other members of the group in the situation, while taking into account who was “probably going to win this one,” how to pick one’s battles, when to placate, when to propose, when to stall and stonewall … I learned all that in my family of origin before I was 12 years old. The idea that “power dynamics” don’t operate inside a family is, according to me, “romantic” in the sense of false. The commitment to seeing “the family” as a power-free social context is, I would argue, a step in the direction of guaranteeing that it will not be a social context in which power dynamics are noticed, acknowledged, and negotiated in such a way that they have gained their legitimacy by being subjected to some scrutiny and by winning our mutual agreement on the grounds of our considered ethical criteria. That kind of legitimation doesn’t happen by accident, without intention and commitment. Sometimes it doesn’t even happen with intention and commitment, but it definitely doesn’t happen without it.

I would extend this argument to any other context. Our commitment to seeing some contexts as “apolitical” spaces is a step in the direction of guaranteeing that we will fail to scrutinize the politics that inevitably will go on in them (according to my definition, the “how” of our decision making). Because of that, it is a step in the direction of accepting uncritically assumptions, arrangements, and processes that, if scrutinized, would be found to challenge or, in the worst case, violate our avowed ethical commitments.

One point is that “politics” – at least, according to my definition – isn’t a property of the kind of instrumental reason challenged by the Frankfurt School, a kind of rationalized pursuit of whatever chosen ends are “given” by the “machine,” unexamined in the light of human values. It is, rather, a human property. It is not automatically something suspect or undesirable; it is, I would argue, something we cannot be human without. But like every human property, it can be appropriated and channeled in inhuman and anti-human ways. The recognition that human beings do things in concrete, specific ways – that in the same way we must live somewhere specific, in some specific way, we must make the decisions we make together some specific how, according to specific guiding principles, assumptions, agreements, arrangements, etc., doesn’t say anything necessarily nefarious about what those specifics have to be. It does, however, alert us to the fact that no matter what specific context we find ourselves in, we may find ourselves embroiled in unwholesome decision making processes.

[The Augustinians and the Calvinists in the audience ought to support me on this one, since they’ll agree that no matter where we are, we always face the need to be on guard against our own human depravity.]

The other objection I’ve heard, and that I have thought about over the years, is that this doesn’t add anything to thinking of politics as the operation of power, the playing out of power relations. I think I finally have an answer to that: this way of thinking about politics is actually a way of demystifying that problematic concept of “power,” by focusing thinkers’ attention on the places where the “power” that operates in “the operations of power relations” is manufactured – “takes place,” if you will.

Here’s a mundane example, one I’ve used before: the example of deciding where to have lunch. Say “the four of us,” whoever we are, are deciding where to have lunch. If we’re all co-workers, we’re likely to put it to a loose sort of voting procedure: “Where do we want to go?” “I don’t care.” “I don’t really care, but not O’Charley’s” “What about Vegan Vixen?” “Sure, OK.” The ayes have it, and off we go to the Vegan Vixen. We could imagine a number of variations on the scenario: like, the one where our boss is part of the group, and we all end up going where she wants thanks to the operation of social status and our dependence on her good opinion for our job; the one where someone shows up with an instrument of coercion and forces us to go where he wants us to, and to pay for his lunch while we’re at it; we could play this game all day, drawing on our knowledge of social and political and economic theory to our hearts’ content.

Here’s a specific one: Beulah the Bully, one of our co-workers, always prevails when we include her in these decisions. Whenever we go out with Beulah, we go to the Vegan Vixen because it’s the only place within walking distance that recycles, and we all agree that yes, that’s important. So … whenever we really want to eat red meat, we don’t include Beulah in our lunch plans. The three of us casually arrange to leave 5 minutes early, or we all coincidentally say “just gonna grab something at my desk” when she says “Vegan Vixen, anyone?” and then five minutes later, say to whoever’s still in the office, “hey, come to think of it, want to grab a burger at CarniBoris?” And again, the ayes have it, only this time there are just the three, or two, ayes. I haven’t done any homework on the “concept of power” recently, but 30 years ago, the way political scientists thought about “power” would have led us to want to assign some “quantum” of power to Beulah, and we would have had a hard time doing that, because Beulah’s power is neither fixed, nor quantitative; it’s a property of the specific decision making context, and takes place in the specific decision making situation or process. It’s a complex property – if it is a property – and the process affects its variable emergence and operation.

Defining politics as the field of operation of power relations, I think, presupposes we know what and were power relations “are.” Thinking of politics as “how people make decisions in groups” leaves the matter more open to observation. It acknowledges, I think, the role of rhetorical practices, discourses, identity, the creation of decision making subjectivities, and on and on, without jettisoning the more traditional elements of relation to means of production, status, gender-race-and-class, roles, etc. etc. And it doesn’t presuppose that “power” is something people “have” independent of the contexts and situations in which they participate, the others with whom they do that, and the way they organize themselves to get their way, or allow others to get theirs, or try to get everyone involved to be happy with whatever way everyone ends up getting.

I am still not so post-modern that I don’t think definitions matter. Words may not have stable or fixed meanings, but having some sense of “what we mean when we say” whatever we say does make a difference in what we look at, what we think is worth looking at, where we draw the lines for ourselves that identify “same as” and “different from,” “this” and “that.” Maybe this is on my mind again because national politics is challenging so many cherished assumptions regarding “how Americans decide who is going to be president” these days. Or maybe it is on my mind because my church is trying to make a huge decision about how to use the building. It’s the same thing, “politics,” in some way that matters, according to me: how are we going to make this decision? What are the factors that are coming into play? How is this process working for us? How could we do this … better?

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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