Otto von Bismarck — the man considered most responsible for making Germany a unified, modern nation by melding together 39 independent German states in the late 1800s, thus turning Germany into one of the most formidable powers of its day — once noted, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” This master strategist and statesman also observed, “Politics is not a science … but an art.” An art that when practiced well moves a society forward.
These wise words sum up well the process of governing in a democratic state. Politics — the actions or activities concerned with achieving and using power in a country or society — is not, as Bismarck noted, an exact science. There are no firm rules or laws, such as those found in the sciences, governing its operation or use in a society.
In order to exercise such power artfully, those who hold political power in a society must: 1) have a keen interest in advancing the interest of the people; 2) have some degree of moral authority — not necessarily being saintly, but their lives and person should communicate they can be trusted and their word means something; 3) understand he or she will not always get everything they want — therefore, to some degree compromise is necessary.
This list is no way exhaustive, but taken together these elements, when embodied by a political leader(s), allow politics in a democratic society to become, in Bismarck’s words, “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” The exercise of this art is what has allowed the United States to ascend to political primacy over the past century; the lack of it of late has mired our nation in political dysfunction.
Closer to home, things politically now seem much more possible. Achieving the politically possible is difficult when your political leaders are serious problems themselves. Exercising the art of politics becomes impossible when a political craftsperson is profoundly flawed. This is precisely the position Alabama was in. Though the art of politics has never been exercised particularly well in Alabama, over the last year or so it has been especially enfeebled.
The grandfatherly figure that led the executive branch of state government, far from being the Mayberry character he presented himself to be, turned out to be more like Robert De Niro’s “dirty” grandpa character from the movie “Bad Grandpa.”
The former leader of the legislative branch, who promised in 2010 to usher in and lead one of the most ethical, efficient and fiscally conservative governments Alabama has ever had became the leader of just the opposite. Now in prison, Mike Hubbard, who oversaw the Republican takeover of the Alabama State House, personally became mired in a slew of unethical and illegal conduct. Hubbard oversaw a legislature that caused Claire Austin, a longtime Republican and Montgomery lobbyist, to declare, “Instead of tax-and-spend Democrats, [we got] borrow-and-spend Republicans.”
The former head of Alabama’s judicial branch, Roy Moore, who has twice now confused the position of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court with that of Charleston Heston’s character Moses from the classic film “The Ten Commandments,” made a mockery of a state judicial system that has been too long overlooked, underfunded and understaffed.
Serious barriers to making the art of politics possible have been removed. This doesn’t mean that in a state like Alabama others don’t exist, but if there was ever a time for public optimism, it is now. Already the state has gotten rid of an odorous practice we were the last in the nation to eradicate. Called Judicial Override, in one of her first acts as the state’s new governor, Kay Ivey signed a bill eradicating the practice.
With this power, judges had the ability to override a jury’s decision on death penalty cases. The practice led, during election time in Alabama, to a surge in death penalty sentences when judges up for re-election tried to look tough on crime by going against a jury verdict. Justice was often perverted to garner votes.
As a former school teacher, our new governor has spoken of a keen interest in making education a real top priority, not just offering lip service. With only several weeks left in the legislative session, Gov. Ivey and state legislative leaders seem more on the same page concerning criminal justice reform. They appear to recognize reform is more than just about building new prisons, it’s also about addressing issues such as mental health and staffing in our prison system.
Following the lead of 26 other states, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently sent to the full Senate SB200, a measure that would, according to the bill’s own language, “[increase] employment opportunities for people with [criminal] records, will reduce recidivism and improve economic stability in our communities.”
The “Ban the Box” bill, as it is known, would remove the criminal history check-box from applications for many local and state government jobs. It has been a proven method for allowing applicants with a criminal history to be considered based on merit and not immediately excluded due to a box they had to check on a job application. Other very pressing issues must be addressed, for sure, but at least for now politics, that art of the possible, of the attainable, seems within reach.
This past weekend Christians celebrated Easter. It’s the observance of a holiday that has at its heart the message of possibility. At its core, it’s a celebration of darkness giving way to light, to hope, to newness. For a state in need of it, may our leaders allow themselves to be infused with this spirit — that of the possible — for the good of all.