The title quotation is from Otto von Bismark and previously attributed to R A Butler. It also features in the hit musical Evita, where the generals play a sedate games of musical chairs. At one stage Juan Perón is left without a chair, but one of the junior generals gives up his seat when Perón stares him down.
There are many forms of politics, and in my opinion, political systems work best when they are simple. Some systems which are simple in concept (such as democracy) are often implemented in a complicated fashion which arguably fails the test of providing the results implied or entailed in the objectives of the system.
All systems provide some of the objectives that they are set up to provide and in that cases they pass the much weaker “Bismark test” of providing what it is possible for them to provide.
Politics is all about interactions between individuals and the system. The smallest possible political system is three people, I’d say, where there are a number of ways that they can interact. Each individual may act alone in interactions between the three or two may pair up in interactions with the third, or they may interact in a cooperative way. My mathematical tendencies see another options – they may choose to not interact at all, but in real situations that’s unlikely.
In political systems one or more people may become or make themselves leaders. In a group of three or even a pairing one person may always take the lead in things or leadership may be exercised by different individuals depending on the situation.
Most leaders will like leading, and may take steps to maintain their leadership, to the point of discouraging or even disposing of rivals for the task. Of course, there are generally some trapping of leadership, prestige, often respect, money, property, sometimes fancy dress and so on, but many leaders are likely to believe that at least in part, that they are the best people to lead.
The much maligned Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli is usually invoked when someone wants to describe an unscrupulous politician, but Machievelli’s book, the Prince, is a set of pragmatic options for retaining power. Machievelli argues that public and private morality are different, and as such a leader may do things which he might personally consider immoral to maintain his position.
In Machievelli’s day, it may be been accepted that torture and assassination were appropriate behaviour for a leader. Is the situation that different today, though? While physical torture and actual assassination no longer have a place in politics, political leaders may well use such tools in non-physical ways to rid themselves of unwanted opponents and would be future leaders.
In democracies political parties tend to align themselves along a left-right spectrum as if politics has suddenly become one dimensional. This leads to a polarisation of political groups into left or right. So we see right wing adherents attacking left wing opponents in a modern day version of political assassination, while intra-group interactions may be characterised as “back stabbing”. Has politics really changed from Machievelli’s day?
Our voting system is called Mixed Member Proportional representation. It’s a superficially simple system, where people have an electoral vote and a party vote. Since the party vote determine the mix of MPs in Parliament, it is more important than the electorate vote in most cases.
We had one of the exceptions in our electorate. The local MP represents a small party and because the party is a small one, its party vote was tiny, both in the electorate and the party.
One effect of the proportional part of the system is that the various parties construct lists of candidates who don’t have to stand in an electorate. This essentially means that parties can put people on their lists who could run in an electorate, either because they are not popular, or because the party wants to run another person in a seat.
Obviously this “simple” system is not that simple in practise. As an example we had the bizarre case where an electorate candidate was urging voters to vote for another candidate! This was to insure that a third candidate did not win. The electorate candidate was also high on the party list, so enters Parliament anyway. (He would not have done so had the party vote fallen dramatically).
I hope that shows how a supposedly simple voting system can lead to complexities. As always parties and candidates (and voters for that matter) act pragmatically in their own best interests. Senior politicians of all shades tend to migrate to the safest options, and the newcomers are given the more risky options. A politician (and the public) can judge his standing in the party by where he ends up.
Politics being “the art of the possible”, minor parties try to work the system. If they are left leaning they will usually try to engineer an alliance with the major left wing party, preferably before the election, but often after the event. The opposite applies to the minor right wing parties.
Minor parties may indicate which policies of their they are willing to forgo for this “marriage of convenience”. Even if they can’t get the major parties to agree before the election they can try to convince the public that the major party will agree after the election.
A minor party may strongly deny that they will ally with a major party before the election while forming an alliance with them after the election. This generally doesn’t harm the long prospects of party it seems!
Politics is indeed the “art of the possible”. Political expediency is the rule of thumb. To succeed in politics one must be prepared to compromise. A politician has to decide, when dealing with other parties and the public what his line in the sand comprises, which policies are essential to him, and which policies can be sacrificed or deferred. It surprises me that people do not appear to understand this issue, as it is exactly what happens when people deal with other people in non-political life.