Politics -- it’s become a dirty word.
It’s about crass politicians talking about “little hands” and other body parts; it’s sleazy lobbyists who dole out campaign contributions for lawmakers’ votes; it’s political consultants who hire out to the highest bidder; it’s politicians who spout fear, bigotry and lies simply because they can; it’s a system of gerrymandered districts which make it impossible for reasonable moderate people to get elected; it’s slick TV ads crafted based on public opinion polls and not political ideas or principles; it’s regular citizens and their interests getting steam rolled by special interest and special influence; it’s campaigns which cost way too much and are too often about fundraising; it’s about gridlock in our national and state capitals where compromise is a dirty word; it’s about something called super PACs, which seem capable of dumping tens of millions in secret money into campaigns; it’s a few governors, senators, congressmen or legislators getting together to work out “the deal” and then forcing it down the throats of the people who elected them; its industry lobbyists in Washington ganging up with the bureaucrats who issue special interest regulations to tell people on the local level what to do -- and on and on it goes.
It does not have to be this way.
The word “politics” is a very old word. It goes back to the ancient Greek word “polites” meaning citizen. A modern dictionary (i.e. Google) defines it simply and elegantly as to “engage in political activity.”
The more you read and study the various definitions of the word and how it has changed and morphed over time, the more you understand the key concept is always “the citizen” and their making the decisions which impact their lives. My contemporary definitions of politics show just how far we have strayed from the original Greek meaning.
All of this is why the recent “politics” around the issue of off-shore drilling in South Carolina and the Atlantic coast has come like a bolt of lightning out of the blue on a cloudless summer day.
Things just don’t happen like this -- but they did. What we would expect would happen didn’t, and what we expected wouldn’t happen did.
First the facts. There are oil and natural gas deposits off the southeastern coast -- and some people (mostly oil companies) want to drill to get it. Other people (mostly just people, i.e. “polites”) don’t want them to do it. Well, according to traditional politics as usual, we can pretty much guess how this is going to turn out -- oil companies win, citizens loose.
In January of last year, President Obama surprised almost everyone and announced he would open the southeast coast to off shore drilling for the first time ever. The New York Times succinctly described the reaction: “…environmental advocates were shocked and enraged -- and the oil industry was delighted.”
Other than the fact it was Obama (who generally supports environmental issues), what happened next was pretty much politics as ususal.
The four governors of the coastal states (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) all signed up to go along for the ride, Democrats and Republicans. The next step in the usual political script was they signed up most, though not all, of the Washington senators and congressmen from these states. There were a few holdouts among low ranking coastal congressmen and legislators (Democratic and Republican), but the same script says they would eventually cave, or there were not enough of them to matter.
So goes, politics as usual.
But something happened along the way … the “polites” (remember these folks? … the citizens) said no. In the four states all along the coast, the people -- and mayors and municipal councils in more than 100 communities, local newspapers, small businesses, environmental organizations, local fishermen and beach residents -- said no. In fact, more than 1 million “polites” weighed in against the proposal, with petitions, letters, public comments, etc.
And they won. Last week, the Obama Administration announced it was canceling the plan.
In the days since, there have been lots of reactions and lots of angry words -- Gov. Haley said Obama had “pulled the rug out from under us.” There were many factors which contributed to this stunning reversal, not the least of which was the Navy opposed the drilling. But, one thing is clear -- the “polites” of South Carolina were leaders in this fight.
Billy Keyserling, mayor of Beaufort, was one of the earliest and most vocal leaders in rallying the coastal mayors and councils. Frank Knapp of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, worked tirelessly to organize opposition among the small businesses up and down the coast. Our state’s environmental groups such as the Costal Conservation League and new ad-hoc groups such as Don’t Drill LowCountry worked very effectively.
In the end, it was how politics is supposed to work: people understood the issues, they knew what it meant to them and their future and they went to work to win.
So, as has been said many times and many ways over many centuries, “Power to the ‘polites!’”
(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange. Contact noble at firstname.lastname@example.org).