Likability In Politics and Government, A Reflection On The Government Shutdown Over Border Wall Funding
The US government shutdown over border wall funding has been a major source of political drama for the end of 2018 that will continue to define government relations into the 2019 New Year. Despite the fact the shutdown takes place at a time when most Americans are preoccupied with the Holiday Season and their winter vacations, the foreboding uncertainty of the shutdown fuels anxiety in those whose livelihoods depend on the flow of federal dollars. It is certainly a reminder that partisans have turned modern government into a source of a societal woes rather than a catalyst for solutions to social issues. It is also a reminder of the hypocrisy that has become such a innate characteristic among the managers of American society. Despite reneging on a variety of campaign promises, President Donald Trump has been willing to shutdown the government over a relatively trivial issue. Despite supporting border wall funding in the past, Senate Minority Leader and other Democrats now oppose Trump’s wall. A variety of reasons can be used to rationalize their opposition, but the primary reason is the fact they just do not like Donald Trump. It is a truth that provides powerful insights into the nature of politics and government.
Politics, nor public policy, is not about facts or logic. It is about what people want and who they like. Politics, which describes the interactions of leaders and the populations they preside over, is driven by relationships. From the politics of government to that of business to the politics of all social circles, relationships trump things like facts and logic. To be successful, one must only be able to build constructive relationships with others. If someone is liked, a controversial, illogical idea provided by that person is more likely to be accepted than a mundane, logical idea supported by someone who is not liked. Beyond relationships, people need to like ideas before they will support them. The soundness of an argument only helps make an idea more likable and more palatable to those who are still hesitant to accept it, even when facing a critical level of social pressure. In many respects, it is a sad truth, but politics is a product of human subjectivity and emotion, not human intellect. Political science, which cannot fully describe politics unless it is treated as a sub-field of psychology and sociology, is only an attempt to intellectualize the emotion-based motivators behind politics.
With that in mind, it is probably fairly easy for most people to accept the idea that personal interactions are governed by how much someone is liked. It may not feel very fair, but the notion that private concerns like business are governed by personal likes can also be accepted. When it comes to public institutions like government, which are supposed to serve all members of society, it is a lot harder. Clearly, the political views of all individuals are going to be based on their subjective views and feelings about issues. Public policies and the behavior of government should not, however, be dictated by the personal feelings of those running government. Someone should not get a government job or contract, because some Congressman likes him. The likability of a contract proposal should not matter either. It is the soundness of the proposal that should count. While modern governments, at least in the developed world, have controls that help reduce the influence of personal bias on behalf of public officials who indulge in nepotism, the unfortunate truth is the nature of politics means personal feelings cannot be completely removed from the business of government.
At best, government can limit the personal favoritism of public officials by creating laws that establish equal access to government and provide equal production by, as well as from, government. The personal whims of voters will always be represented by their elected officials as long as government and public policies represent the interests of the populous, which is a necessity that allows government to represent the needs and wants of the People, i.e. the purpose of government and civil society. Human leaders will, of course, always add their personal bias to their interpretations of what the public wants. Since likability will never be removed from government, it is necessary to recognize the harmful impact it can have on public policy. It is also necessary to limit the damage it causes by recognizing when it plays a role and when it is overshadowing the soundness of an idea. Public debate, which needs to be more robust, already plays a role in filtering likeable, yet untenable, public policies. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to override the personal opinions of people once an idea becomes entrenched in their minds. In contrast, the undue influence of an individual from that person’s likability is an issue easily overlooked and neglected.
In the case of Donald Trump, outside of those who are enthralled by his confrontational political style, his dis-likability pushes people to oppose even his most sensible public policy preferences. Trump is so universally disliked that he brings hardened rivals and enemies together, which is particularly striking on the global stage. It is certainly not a good thing for American interests to have the US President serve as a common “enemy” of political and world leaders, but the phenomenon demonstrates how unifying distaste for someone can be. Although public official should not oppose sound policies based on their distaste of the President, the simple truth of politics is that the likability and dis-likability of someone makes it possible or impossible to support public policies. Even if Democrats could overcome their own personal feelings about Trump, the policies of the President exist in a context that prevents Democrats from supporting his initiatives, i.e. their supporters dislike him too much. For his part, Trump helped create this context by doing things like framing illegal immigrates as nothing more than “rapists,” “murderers,” and “criminals” coming to leech off American taxpayers. The situation serves as a bold example of how “likability” plays a multi-dimensional role in politics and government.
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