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.)