Comment: Are we really political animals?

Photo by Andrea Mazza, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Andrea Mazza, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the nation of Uruguay selected a new president in November, all the country’s ills seemed to be solvable through proper government policy-making.

Political campaigns stressed the possibility of change embedded in their political agendas. But, is politics the answer? Are we, as Aristotle put it, truly “political animals”?
Many attribute the power to solve problems such as unemployment and poverty to the government, but at the same time, many reduce politics to a dirty power play of vested interests.

In a utopian world, politicians are the freely chosen representatives of the population, and the administrators of the policies that are directed to improve that population’s standards of living. This notion is based on Rousseau’s social contract; the idea where citizens have a common good to strive towards.

However, many have argued that politics serves as a means for certain individual interests to be realized. When attributing politics with the power to solve society’s ills, a number of assumptions are overlooked.

First, the idea relies on the notion that politicians are altruistic beings that place society’s needs in front of their individual desires. Secondly, it relies on the idea that these politicians can truly represent certain segments of the overall population and identify their needs. And, thirdly, it relies on the assumption that political will is not bent by economic power.

These are just a few of the reasons why many have lost faith in the political process in order to achieve change. Most importantly, nonetheless, one of the main reasons why many individuals do not choose a policy making career is the fact that often party politics and vested interests obscure well-intentioned initiatives.

It is certainly the case in Uruguay that just a few families dominate the political landscape, and that the recent presidential candidates were all from families of past political figures. Politics, then, is reduced to a power play between a few who dominate party politics and that undermine the possible renovation of the political scene.

This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle, since citizens lose faith in politics due to the fact that there are no visible and distinct options to choose from. Instead, all politicians are placed in the same bag.

Following this cycle, even well intentioned politicians are not given a chance and are assumed to be as incompetent as the rest.

However, others would argue that placing all agency on politics is unrealistic and that solutions to society’s problems will also come from other sources. The unrealistic expectation that is placed on politics is seen to be the cause of why people lose faith on the political process.

Following that line of thought, civil society is frequently evoked as a space that has the capability of addressing society’s ills more eloquently.

Civil society is used to describe that realm between the private and the public sphere, and is often favored over mainstream politics as a way for citizens to be more directly represented.

The main focus of the debate is placed on the ability of a political process to enact meaningful change in solving common problems. This, in turn, becomes an ethics debate since the very identification of those problems and their eventual solution depend on the perspective of those in the leadership.

Civil society advocates often articulate that, since civil society is less detached from the members of a society, it is better equipped to articulate those ethical questions in a more neutral manner and it is less dependent on an individually oriented vision.

The key merit of the utopian political process is based on the premise that all members of a society can express their concerns, problems, and ideas for discussion, which would lead to an eventual consensus.

The main criticism to that premise is that it has never existed in reality. For instance, the members allowed to participate in discussion have always been framed along ethnic, economic, social, cultural, and gendered lines. The political process has never been neutral and has almost always been embedded in the ethical visions of a few.

Attributing agency to a certain mechanism in order to achieve change and solve problems will depend on each society’s priorities and political imagination.

In a country such as Uruguay, where people place a strong emphasis on the political process as a means for change, a re-imagination of politics as a more inclusive and open space is needed in order to renovate the political landscape.

The extent to which politics will enable meaningful change will depend on us. At the end of the day, we can all be political animals, if we choose to be.