six varieties of politics

If “politics” means all interactions on public or common matters, here are six varieties of it. They overlap, yet no category is coterminous with any of the others:

1. Adversarial politics: The parties hold incompatible interests or goals, but some resolution must be reached. We can divide this category into three subtypes:

1a. Negotiation: the parties reach a satisfactory conclusion that partly meets each one’s interests.

1b. Authoritative decisions, which may be made by a ruler or ruling body, by an outside mediator, or by the group as a whole using an authoritative process, such as majority rule.

1c. Doing without agreement by protecting individual liberty and letting the aggregate outcome be a function of private decisions.

2. Unitary politics: The parties either have or are able to create a genuine consensus of interests. As Jane Mansbridge argues in Beyond Adversary Democracy, this can happen if their interests happen to coincide from the beginning, if they persuade one another to agree (see variety 3, below), or if they all take the interest of the group as paramount.

3. Deliberative politics: The parties exchange reasons and attempt to persuade others to change their authentic goals and interests. Deliberative politics differs from Negotiation (1a) in that deliberators hope to make interests coincide rather than treat them as fixed and try to maximize everyone’s satisfaction. It differs from Unitary politics (2) because it may not generate anything close to a consensus and may, indeed, be rather contentious.

4. Co-creative politics (“public work” in Harry Boyte’s phrase): The parties create or build something together, whether the object is open-source software, a physical playground, or the norms and traditions of a community. Public work differs from Deliberative politics (3) because it may not be very discursive; and if the participants do talk, they may not need to address conflicting interests and values. They may share goals and only discuss means and techniques.

5. Relational politics: interactions among people who make decisions or take collective actions knowing something about one another’s ideas, preferences, and interests. Each participant has at least the potential to influence and be influenced by each of the others; thus relational politics is interactive. It need not be face-to-face if available technologies (letters in 1776, the Internet today) allow sufficient interaction at a distance. Nor does relational politics depend on or produce unity; people can have close political interactions with their opponents and critics. The defining feature of relational politics is mutual knowledge and influence.

6. Impersonal politics: yields decisions and actions without the participants having to know one another. Examples of impersonal politics include populations that vote by secret ballot, consumers who determine prices by the aggregate of their purchasing decisions, and rulers who issue laws, orders, or edicts that apply to unknown individuals. Each of these is an act of leverage in the Archimedean sense. As actors in impersonal politics, we can move distant objects, even if our impact is minuscule or outweighed by others’.

My own view is that we need all of these varieties. Relational politics, in particular, is by no means ideal or sufficient. The phrase “office politics” has a negative ring because so many interactions in a workplace where colleagues know one another are manipulative, unfair, exclusive, or just tedious. The extreme case is torture, which is as relational an interaction as we can conceive. David Luban observes:

The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim–in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim’s body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim’s spirit. (David Luban,“Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb,” Virginia Law Review, vol. 91 (Oct. 2005), p. 1430)

Office politics and (much more so) torture are marked by inequality, yet even under conditions of rough equality, relational politics can be inefficient or unproductive.

Yet I would argue that relational politics fills an important need in a society dominated by impersonal and adversarial institutions. It is best when it is also deliberative (3) and co-creative (4). That combination deserves active support. Further, since powerful institutions have no incentives to promote such politics and may have reasons to subvert, coopt, or repress it, someone must fight on behalf of productive relational politics. That requires some use of adversarial and impersonal tools (votes, lawsuits, mass communications) in the defense of relational interactions. How to accomplish that seems to me one of the hardest problems for anyone concerned about civic renewal.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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