The words “politics” and “government” are often used interchangeably, but they refer to two different things. This essay is a simple exercise in definition, for the benefit of my other essays on the topic of local politics.
Definitions and Examples
Politics refers to the activity of influencing or changing the social system. The political realm is a large ecosystem of many different components.
Government is a subset of politics; it is the entity (and subsidiary entities) that influences and changes social systems specifically by wielding legal authority to make and enforce laws.
All government is politics, but not all politics is government.
Being a super- and subset, these two things are possessed in interesting Venn diagrammy combinations on the individual agent level:
- Sometimes someone with government power (say, an executive-appointed regulator) does not have any political power beyond their government power. Sometimes, despite their station, they might not even have any government power!
- Sometimes someone with immense political power, like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, does not possess actual government power.
- Sometimes someone with immense political power can pressure those with government power to do as they please.
- Sometimes someone converts political power into government power, either by getting elected or by getting appointed.
- Sometimes someone converts government power into more political power, via patronage, the bully pulpit, and more.
- Sometimes non-government political power can nullify government power (think of every unenforced law or organized crime), and sometimes government power reigns supreme (authoritarian states, where everything is subject to legal censure or not).
Examples of non-government political power include: a large platform to broadcast your opinions; a high position in a non-government entity, like a law firm or a board of trustees; an “elder statesman” position in a political party; etc. These positions have great influence on other political actors, on social norms, and on government officials.
Examples of government political power: holding office and making laws, plebiscites (kinda), or being a police officer or other individual charged with enforcing laws and regulations.
Why do I care about these definitions?
Simply put, I don’t actually. I’m not even fully confident that lexical specificity is useful here 😬. But making a distinction between politics and government is important to help understand one piece of the larger “why don’t people get involved in their locality” picture.
When people say “local politics” or “getting involved,” what they often mean is “local government.”
This isn’t necessarily a problem if someone then says, “I’m not into politics [in their head this means government], but I help out the local neighborhood group that picks up trash ever since the garbage routes were cut.” I would say that they’re involved in local extra-governmental political action, and they might not, but I wouldn’t fight them on it. Frankly, I would deserve a wee punch if I did pick that fight, because we’re both pointing to the same thing in the same way and just using different words for it–there’s no real disagreement, and no one like a pedant.
The big problem arises when, mentally, someone thinks of the government as the only way to affect change–when the mental conflation of politics and government leaks into the real world and real action. When this happens, the same person from the paragraph above looks at the decreasing garbage collection and says, “the government really outta fix that.” Maybe they lodge their protest against cut garbage routes with the government, which probably won’t suddenly reverse course. Meantime the street garbage goes uncollected.
Worse still, engaging in local government is often a highly off-putting prospect, so many don’t even do that; since politics and government are conflated in this scenario, this leaves both the governmental and non-governmental political levers unattended. In the case of New York City, where I live, that often means leaving them to the governmentally inept and the politically disastrous.
BUT: the realm of local politics, properly understood, is much larger than the government. You can influence the social system of your locality by doing a great many things, not just engaging with the formal mechanisms of government (although that’s important too, and is the topic of a separate essay).
It is in the larger extra-governmental political realm that creativity has greater license, where more experimentation can be done, and where more individuals can be (and historically have been) engaged.