Politics and the Political
In Puerto Rican political culture, the difference between politics and the concept of the political is not clear. This unfortunate confusion of popular language is not accidental, nor is it exclusively ours. More than ignorance or lack of interest, it derives from the simplistic speech of political parties and from the insistence of the mass media in reducing political matters to the electoral struggles for the control of state institutions.
The concept of the political, though it does not displace the topic of social conflict and power struggles, refers to the fundamental matters regarding how to organize our coexistence. It incorporates social visions, focusing on viable and desirable ways of organizing the state. The scope of the political includes, among other things, the principles of equality and inviolability of civil or human rights; the electoral process with universal suffrage as a method to determine the succession of power; the configuration of the constitutional state; the effective solution of conflicts without violence; the responsibility of the state for the well being of its citizens; limits to authority; mechanisms of citizen participation and, of special importance, the process of formulating public policy. In other words, visions of social organization lead us to the concept of the political including, of course, the theoretical and empirical critique of its principles and experiences.
On the other hand, when we speak of politics we limit ourselves, in most cases, to partisan power struggles; conflicts over the control of state institutions; control that is acquired, in democratic systems, by manipulating public opinion. In this particular field, the main arena is the electoral debate. Political parties and their leaders are the protagonists who develop organizational and communication skills with the main -if not the sole- purpose of winning elections.
In modern democracies, the political calendar has a single dimension as it subordinates all actions to electoral objectives. Postmodern societies have erected an enormous infrastructure of professional services around these institutions: organizers, pollsters, publicists, communicators, party officials, financiers, lawyers, technocratic and legal advisors, etc. The active complicity of mass media also plays an important role. Without it, it would not be possible to establish communicative bonds between contending parties and the electorate.
The structure of the electoral process, because it is based on constitutional principles as the foundation of democratic life, gives this contentious activity its legitimacy, despite its noticeable discursive excesses and tendency to trivialize political matters. The need to communicate what each contending party offers, as well as to promote the qualities of its leaders through complex and expensive electoral campaigns, represents an economic bonanza for the commercial media. The rising cost of today`s campaigns partly belie the complicity between political parties and the media, and the prevailing tendency to highlight a trivial discourse that personalizes programmatic alternatives and exacerbates the tribal spirit of the parties. This practice tends to discard the political in the pursuit of power; that is to say, of politics.
One of the unfortunate effects of this confusion of terms has been the fact that the growing disappointment in the political class and the current electoral rhetoric has encouraged a general tendency to reject and abandon the field of politics. We forget, however, that in doing so, we also neglect the dialogue regarding the political; meaning the consideration of fundamental visionary elements and their expression in public policy, through meaningful political action. Without consideration for the political, it would not be possible to build a country or imagine its future.
Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Centro de Investigación y Política Pública
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 16, 2008.
This post is also available in: Español