On Politics, Government, and Semantics

For the average person, politics and government are pretty much synonymous. At the very least, they belong in the same breath, “politics-and-government,” two concepts that always go together and occupy the same space in your mind. For folks like me, they’re two very different things.

Before I explain, let me start with an anecdote. The governor was in town today, and our office staff was helping out a bit at the event. I invited the Mister* to stop by, but he can’t make it. I told him he could mention it to our college friend, who works at the same place he does, if he thought the guy might be interested in meeting the governor. We had this exchange.

MISTER: [Friend] isn’t really interested in politics.
ME: But it’s not politics; it’s the governor!
MISTER: You don’t get much more political than the governor.
ME: But it’s not political at all! It’s a speech about his plans for the last month of legislative session. It’s a government thing.

This was followed by the Mister shaking his head at me and rolling his eyes. Because for him, there is no difference between the two. The governor is an elected official, and it’s something that will probably turn up on the news, which means it’s “political.” For me, it has nothing to do with campaigning and everything to do with policy, which means it’s governmental, not political.

All of this comes down to a practical problem that staffers for elected officials are frequently confronted with. That is, if you work in the government office, you are not legally permitted to handle campaign work on government time, using government resources. (Moreover, you can’t be required to do campaign work at all, although most of us do it “voluntarily,” because if your boss loses his or her reelection campaign, you also lose your job.) That means that there must be a clear divide between what is political – that is, campaign-related – and what is governmental – in service of the constituency. Any work that isn’t considered governmental service is unpaid. Block clubs and garden walks and labor rallies and town hall meetings, sure – those are ways to get out in the community, meet constituents, hear about the things that matter to them. Rallies for candidates, phone banking, canvassing, fundraisers: those are all things with a clear political goal of getting someone elected to office. So when I think about things as government or politics, I have an easy shorthand to help me keep them separate. Can I get paid for what I’m doing right now? Should I be working on this in my office? If yes, it’s government. If no, it’s politics.

When I think about the things the governor spoke about, I can see why it’s easy for people who are not confronted by this dichotomy to conflate the two. He talked about marriage equality, property tax caps, and ethics reform. These are the same issues he spoke about on the campaign trail last year. And I suppose you could argue that in this day and age, American politicians start running for reelection the moment they’re in office. But since it’s not his campaign cycle yet, since it’s primarily a way to put public pressure on legislators to pass his agenda items rather than a direct call to vote for him, it’s one of the moving parts of the governmental process. (And, more importantly to me, I actually got paid for the time I put in at the event!)

Maybe I’m the one who’s a little off here, and folks who think like me are seeing a dichotomy where one doesn’t exist. But when I watch the news or hear the stories about what’s gone on in Congress today, I think that maybe more people ought to separate government from politics. There’s a time and place for campaigning and grandstanding, and the things you do to be successful are not the same as the ones that help the community you represent. Maybe people need to be reminded that politics is the mechanism to get you in office, but that office is there for you to serve the people who elected you. I truly believe that government can do a lot of good, but it’s much less useful if we don’t do our jobs because we’re too busy doing politics.

*I should note that the Mister has what I like to call a Normal Person Job that has nothing to do with politics, government, or governance. (I realize that “Normal Person Job” might come off sounding a little derogatory, but that’s a post for another day.)

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BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

7 thoughts on “On Politics, Government, and Semantics”

  1. Hmmm … I get what you’re going for with the concepts here, but I don’t agree.

    Here’s why:

    1. Government consists in the institutions (like Congress), positions (like bureaucrats), and laws (like the Constitution) of the state.
    2. Politics consists in the struggles over power (as broadly defined as you want) among individuals and groups.

    “Politics” is the bigger concept. In fact, as a concept, it can swallow up just about everything. Politics don’t stop. Not ever. And, as such, politics are internal to government, just not necessarily electoral politics (although I am of the perpetual campaign school), and government itself is alsopolitical.

    I’ll grant that when most laypersons whine about “politics” they are whining about partisan electoral politics and campaigning, and with that, the distinction is mostly fair. But politics are so much than that, and there is a conceptual difference between politics and government, but not a sharp divide that seals them off from one another – real or theoretical.

    1. I completely agree. I would argue that what the author is talking about is what I would call electioneering and governing. Although, those words have concurrent definitions to her politics and government.

      The issue that arises is exactly what you call perpetual campaigning. As a result these cannot be separated. In fact when many of us teach courses on Congress or legislating in the American context, we call it the “two Congresses”, the institutional and individual. The process of legislating within the institutions of American government can never be separated from the individual, the most important of which is the goal of reelection. Every institutional decision is made with the individual goals at minimum in mind, but more likely at the forefront.

      Of course, that is only how I see. I’m not disagreeing with BaseballChica at all. I would just argue it a bit differently. In many ways the institutional processes can be far more interesting to watch as she suggests, just as the electioneering is tired and often outwardly negative.

  2. As a civil servant (in Canada), I agree with QoB: politics happens on the Hill, and we do Government. I think that the separation you’re drawing between the 2 has been drawn up to govern the ethics of public spending by political staff, so it’s useful in your context, but not universal (just as the distinction I draw between the two is based on MY employment context, and not necessarily universal).

  3. While I think you’re right, politics and government are not the same, this is where I disagree:

    “Maybe people need to be reminded that politics is the mechanism to get you in office (…)”

    Politics is more than just campaigning and elections, it’s about the processes of gaining influence and holding on to power. It doesn’t stop when election day is over and doesn’t even necessarily mean that every action by an elected official is geared towards being re-elected.

    I was taught to think about ‘politics’ (defined as what would show up in the news) as consisting of three related and interdependent parts:

    Policy is what elected officials or government does, the laws they pass, their legislative agenda, how they govern, etc. (you know what I mean)
    Polity is the institutional framework as set out by constitutions and describes how government should work, how the different branches are separated, which powers are given to the different branches etc. Kind of like government without the people who run it.
    Politics refers to who people get into the polity and how they deal with policy. It’s about elections and increasing influence, for themselves, their party, their believes, etc. The process of how this should work is set out by the polity and usually it concerns itself with policy.

    (You probably know all this, I’m sorry if it sounds patronising.)

    The separation between all three is largely theoretical, it only serves to illustrate the different parts and processes of what is usually understood as ‘politics’.

    My point is: how is a speech by an elected politician about their policy and plans ever not political? It may not be about re-election but probably about the politics involved in policy, about passing legislation they think is important, about their influence over how other people live.

  4. For the type of system in my country (Rep. of Ireland) the business of government is what civil servants do (and they are forbidden from being active in politics or running for a political office while working in the civil service). Politicians, once elected, also do government work, obviously, but they usually have a political agenda while doing so. That’s how it’s divided up in my head: do civil servants work on it? Government. Do political party people work on it? Politics.

  5. I would say that you have an advantage in being able to neatly separate policy and politics based on your pay status, whereas the rest of us are stuck with interpreting the words that come out of our elected officials’ mouths and trying to reconcile them with their stated positions and their legislative behaviors. Or, to put it another way, while I agree with you 100% that politics is what politicians do to get elected, it encompasses far more than election-season events and includes every power-grabbing, power-consolidating, backslapping pork-barrel dealmaking that goes on while they hold their current jobs.

    Take Governor Scott Walker in Wisconson: his union-busting budget bill claimed to be about fiscal responsibility and the state budget, but: he gave large tax breaks to corporations, adding $137 to the debt, he never proved that removing the unions’ right to bargain saved the state a dime, Wisconsin’s state retirement fund is in solid shape, and it’s not an issue he campaigned on so he can’t claim his constituents’ support. It’s a policy he pursued, successfully, to weaken his political opponents, not serve the people of Wisconsin. His stated reasons did not lead logically to the policy he endorsed.

    I’d say that’s where those of us who don’t work for state or federal gov’t draw the line between “government” and “politics”–actions taken or words said whose purpose is to empower or disempower politicians rather than to solve actual civil problems.

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