On Politicking

Aristotle’s claim that people are by nature political animals is premised on the idea that our nature is essentially social.

Like other animals, we live in groups, which have their status roles and hierarchies.

Unlike other animals, we also have self-consciousness, which means we can build much more sophisticated cultures with much subtler social roles and expectations. We can judge (however arbitrarily) whether someone is dressed “correctly.” We can ask What have you done for me lately? — and remember the answer.

That the social politics of everyday life might be complex, subtle, or ultimately arbitrary does not make them any less real. You’re certainly free to wear a sweatsuit to the big job interview — there’s no law against it. But your interviewers are equally free to not invite you back.

The past few years have started a new conversation in the United States about the differences between the worlds of politics and policy. The temptation, even among some policy people, is to see politics as the land of slime: endless networking, logrolling, and grasping at coattails.

There’s plenty of slime in politics, and plenty of slimy politicians. No one denies that. But what gets forgotten is just how political the policy world can be: organizations as big and entrenched as federal departments have baroque and subtle office politics of their own (and that’s just among the career people, never mind the political appointees).

Most of the complaints about politics and networking, then, are really cultural complaints. It’s quite reasonable to wonder if there’s a better way to interact with people than through craven palace intrigue.

The bad news is that politics — large and small — is not going away anytime soon. As long as people live and work together, they’ll find status games to play.

The good news is that it might be well within our power to change the culture. If we get choosier about whose coattails we grab and why — or even whether to grab coattails at all — we might be able to be well connected for the right reasons rather than the wrong ones.