On politics as a business (and those Harris County Republican Party slate mailers)

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So, the 2014 Texas springtime political primaries have come and gone. This season was a rather interesting one. With governor Rick Perry retiring after 14 years of rule, regime change is in the air in Texas and will be blowing through the halls of power in Austin. Closer to home, there was also excitement, primarily on the Republican side of the ledger in Harris County, featuring an internecine battle between the regime led by lawyer Jared Woodfill (who had presided over the local Republican Party for 12 years), and three-time challenger Paul Simpson. As we now know, Paul Simpson prevailed in the contest and will soon take over the reins as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party.

A large part of the argument going on in this primary revolved around the issue of slate mailers — the Big Three being former HCRP chairman Gary Polland’s Texas Conservative Review, Dr. Steven Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County, and Terry Lowry’s The Link Letter. Much of the battle included formal denunciations of the slate mailers (some of these going back a while), accusing them of pay for play tactics and their outsized influence in local politics. But behind the endless gas bagging and worries about pay for play and the seeming tawdriness of it all lies something that nobody anywhere seems to want to admit: the issue that politics for many is not a battle of ideas or principles. Rather, for many, politics is a business — and a big one, since the “business” of state has become so vast!

What is politics (when the state becomes vast)?

Some months ago, I was at a Friday evening pot luck dinner when I ran across a friend of mine named Dennis. I’ve known Dennis for a long time but I only see him once in a blue moon. Many moons ago, Dennis was a two-time candidate for public office; he lost on both occasions and subsequently decided to concentrate on keeping his head above water like most other folks. But on this occasion, as Dennis and I fell into a discussion about politics, Dennis asked me point blank a simple question:

“Neal, what is politics?”

I answered Dennis’s question with a fairly typical libertarian-type response. I told Dennis that politics was a process by which people struggled to gain control of the coercive powers of the state, and that it was a process by which resources (people’s time and money) were wasted while people fought over who got what. Dennis, who was eating a plate of food, gave me a very hard look, put his plate down, and in a very hard edged voice said to me:

“Neal, politics is a business.”

Those words hit me like freight train. All of my pretensions about politics were blown away. Of course, I was right about politics in my own way, but what was so hard about what Dennis had said was that Dennis was right too.

Activists don’t always make the best political businessmen

The hard reality about politics being a business is that as an activist, I’ve been a very lousy political businessman. I’ve spent an awful lot of time and money on politics, and can say in all honesty that I’ve gotten very little out of it other than some pride over the fact that I’ve helped win a couple of battles. I am not a publisher of a slate mailer like Terry Lowry, who is very good at the business of politics. I have never been elected to public office. I am not an attorney, nor a political scientist, nor a political consultant, nor have I even had the satisfaction of having obtained a government contract in return for the money I’ve poured into politics. In short, politics has been a horrible investment and use of my time. And yes, one person who did run for office (and got elected) did in fact use the phrase invest in the campaign! when urging people to donate towards the war chest. Now ask yourself a very hard question: Why would a politician say something like that?

It is not just the local slate mailers who engage in this form of give and take. I’ve heard a number of stories of would-be candidates for public office who, upon being interviewed by big-name activists, were effectively shaken down for big money in return for their endorsements. I personally have gotten phone calls from a handful of public officials, who while talking to me, asked me, “What do you want?” I inevitably answered, “liberty and freedom,” but it is rather scary to get a phone call from a public official and have them ask you, “what do you want?” After all, government has gotten so large and powerful, and just about everything in today’s world has been so politicized, that politicians can “give” you quite a bit… depending upon what you are after.

But, if you’re going to get neck-deep into the squalid game of politics, you’d better be ready to suit up, and for many people, that also means they might as well turn a buck or two and try to do well for themselves while they’re at it. After all, politics is a business, and since politics has pervaded our lives, politics is good business for many.