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Six Laws of Politics - 10/01/07

In the seven years of writing about local politics for this web site, one of the things which has become obvious is the difference between political so-called science as one studies it in college, and the way that politics actually is practiced in the streets and in the shadowy crevices at City Hall.

Where E is the ultimate answer in politics, does E=mc2? No. There are no mathematical formulas to explain the good, the bad and the ugly of politics. Politics is human action. It's how people organize and use power to protect their interests. So it is subject to all the good, bad and ugly of human nature.

The founding fathers had certain ideas about politics and governance born out of experience. They knew that the state always has the potential for tyranny and corruption. From this they deduced that the best, the safest, government is one limited in power to necessary and proper functions.

But limiting government even at the local level is easier said than done. The municipal power is broad in terms of function and authority. Governments that can seize private property for the benefit of the most privileged interests can do almost anything to its citizens. Make no mistake about it that power, even if it is called by the benign term legal authority, is the power to do something by coercion and force.

Ideally, local governments would be limited to necessary and proper functions and operate within a framework of civic values, rather than according to a set of rules imposed by those already in power to define what is the proper conduct of public officials. Local government would serve the fundamental role of cities to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the people who reside within its jurisdiction.

However, people want cities to do more for them. They want to be safer; they want a clean city; they don't want annoying, eccentric neighbors who paint their houses weird colors; they want the city to entertain them on their otherwise boring weekends. The political class is generally willing to accommodate the demand for more services and action, especially if it helps them expand and maintain their own power base. All this, according to the "immutable" laws of politics, outlined here:

1. All human action is based on self-interest. Of course, there are the rhetorical "men of the people" like Al Capellini, when he first ran for mayor. But the truth is that anybody -- and everybody -- who holds public office has an agenda which is self-serving, or serves the special interests of his political allies. It is unrealistic to think that public officials abandon all personal interests to a more abstract public interest all the time.

2. The public interest is a myth. This is not to say there are not public policy decisions intended to serve the best interests of a whole community. But the reality is that what is in the "public interest" is decided by the most powerful people in the community; see Law 1.

3. The primary motivation of persons who seek or hold public office, regardless of their other attributes, is the acquisition, maintenance, or extension of power. Any change claimed to be in the "public interest," or otherwise, requires power; see Law 2.

4. Political organizations tend towards centralization and concentration of power. In political theory, this fourth law is sometimes called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This "Iron Law" applies to city governments and local politics, as well. The political dynamics of the city resolve in the 15 or so percent of the voters who vote; a relatively small core of business, church and civic club people; and a handful of activists and activist groups. What it comes down to is that most or all cities, including Deerfield Beach, are essentially controlled by small Úlite groups; see Law 3.

5. Politics is the camel that manages to get through the eye of the needle. Like nature, politics finds the hidden flaws. There is a way around just about every procedure, every rule, inconvenient for the political class. Conflict of interest rules, for example, can be avoided just by the simple act of taking a well-timed bathroom break. This principle could be called the "Al Capellini ('Man of the People') Amber Alert Corollary." One of the basic flaws of most modern codes of ethics applicable to public officials, is that they are written by the people already in power; see Laws 1 and 4.

6. People in politics break their own rules, if they can. This is one of the reasons why we have due process, to insure the rule of law; see Laws 1-5.

Many people are cynical about politics. They say "nothing will change" and don't bother to vote or participate. In a sense, they are right. On the other hand, to accomplish anything in the political realm, one must confront the social and political realities, not just whine about them. The "Six Laws of Politics" are not the whole course in politics, needless to say, but they provide insight about how local government operates in real life, and how it may help to produce effective political action.

For example, people do act in their own best interests, and rightly so. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Self-interest can be rational and enlightened. Self-interest can be solipsistic, greedy, and anti-social, also, but there are areas in which individual self-interests overlap. This is how we might abstract a common or public interest.

Apathy is a reality. It's not that less than the whole participates, it's that almost nobody participates. So it is important to realize that local civic affairs are the business mainly of small groups of people who are involved. Opposition forces are small compared to the whole citizenry, but then so is the group in power. It's these cells of politically active people that wake up voters long enough to accomplish reform that is positive.

The "secret" to successful political activism is not to fight apathy, but to exploit it. The political class certainly has, and that's one reason why the bad guys often stay in office almost perpetually. But the good guys can exploit it also; when fewer people vote, it only takes a few hundred inspired people to change things at the local level.

Let's look at a couple of examples. First, the late Amadeo Trinchitella: Trinchi understood politics. To some people outside Century Village East, this guy was just an old clown. But the fact is, that Trinchi was able to control city elections for a couple of decades. How did he do it? By gaining an almost god-like presence with a few thousand CVE residents, who according to him were no longer interested in politics and just wanted to be told how to vote, and to get them to the polls to vote the way he wanted. So here we have just one man, who decided on his own, essentially, who would run the city.

Trinchi wheeled and dealed. Remember the sewer repair billing? It looks to us like Trinchi and city officials conspired to steal city services, for the benefit of CVE. In return for this and Lord knows what else, the then city manager got protection for his job and support for his redevelopment vision. And the mayor got re-elected, again and again, with the CVE vote.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there was the OSOB. One of the few truths published by Judy Wilson's local paper is that the Save Our Beach committee, later known, by necessity, as the Original Save Our Beach, was a small group. In fact, in terms of people active in the group, it was probably even smaller than Wilson knew. In Judy's mind, that was a bad thing, apparently. But look at what it accomplished: a charter amendment requiring voter approval for the transfer of city property (effectively killing the LÚpine proposal), defeating Ocean Park, a charter provision denying the mayor's friends (not to mention the mayor) from reaping millions for building a parking garage on the beach that few wanted, and another restoring sensible land-use rules to the beach area.

The OSOB probably did not think of their mission as "exploiting apathy." They were waking the public to the terrible consequences of unfettered redevelopment. The fact is, however, the OSOB were a handful of people able to win the day, defeating powerful interests. Of course, they didn't do it by donning funny hats and singing to the commission: they took to the streets and confronted people on their issues. Still, in an atmosphere where not too many are interested enough to vote, it does not take many to effect change. The cynics who say "nothing will change" might want to reconsider their position.

Politics is hard-nosed; not much is accomplished by hugging trees. Politicians like to speak of the "noble profession" of politics. The fact is that most will do almost anything they can get away with to maintain their power and accomplish their goals. Some people in office are honest and play by the rules, but the end-game is winning, even for the good guys. This is one reason, as pointed out in the sixth "law," that we have restraints on what governments can do, especially when it affects the rights of citizens. Yet even due process can sometimes be pushed to the limit. Those in power play their own systems, if they feel they must, and persevere against the odds, if the goal is important enough.

The conclusion: In the real world, nothing worthwhile comes easily in politics.