My discovery of the “unimportance” of politics began when I was a student at Willamette University. Theodore Shay, a political science professor, observed that Republicans could take Portland only if telephone service could be knocked out on election day.
This was before mail-in voting came to Oregon. Shay’s prediction assumed that Portland’s outnumbered Republicans would turn out anyway, but that many Democrats would not vote unless poll-watchers phoned them a reminder.
Back then, I was a Republican and thought knocking out the Portland telephone exchange was a great idea! And I devised a simple way to do just that (not revealed here in the unlikely case the idea would still work).
My enthusiasm vanished, however, when I considered the side effects of turning off all telephone calls. People whose houses catch fire couldn’t call the fire department. People who suffer a heart attack or an accident couldn’t summon an ambulance. Suddenly a Republican victory seemed a lot less important.
As a political science student, and later a professor of political science, it took me years fully to realize the dangers of exaggerating the importance of politics. I considered politics important enough to devote my professional life to its study. And most people pay too little attention, often no attention at all, to public policy questions, not too much.
But for a small minority of people, politics is at the “core of their existence” (as Marxist Herbert Marcuse put it), they eat, breath, and sleep politics. According to Mao Tse-Tung, “Not having a correct political outlook is like having no soul.”
Exaggerating the importance of politics, fanatical minorities justify inflicting horrible atrocities on people because they think they can produce changes that will bring total bliss forever after. Exaggerated benefits outweigh any possible costs of getting them. Thus we see millions slaughtered by Communists, by Nazis, by religious extremists with a political agenda (the Inquisition, Zionists, Islamists). We see car bombs, shot-down airliners, the 9/11 attacks, Gulag Archipelagos, Holocausts. Today’s newscasts and papers are full of these atrocities: Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria ….
The common denominator here is that all these disasters were engineered by a minority of fanatics seeking political changes.
In order to restrain fanatics who grossly overestimate the importance of politics, it would help if the vast majority of people who now won’t pay any attention to the subject would spend an hour a week—better, an hour a day---informing themselves and learning how to engage in thinking about politics. (Capitalize these last words and we have a shameless plug for my 1981 college textbook, Thinking About Politics, available for free reading at my website.)
This would immunize them from manipulation by fanatics as well as by economic interests, help them do their own thinking instead of mouthing platitudes fed to them by demagogues, help them to know which side their bread is buttered on and to vote and act intelligently. After all, a few fanatics by themselves cannot cause much trouble. They need help from the multitudes they stir up.
Alfred Lord Tennyson may have exaggerated the importance of politics in his 1835 poem “Locksley Hall,” but he made a very important point when he hoped for a future when:
“The war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of men, the Federation of the world.
“There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”
Paradoxically, for the “common sense of most” to prevail over political fanatics of all types, it will be necessary for many people to take more of an interest in politics.