Civics teachers talk as if politics is about policy, that politics is our system for choosing policies to deal with common problems. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, real politics seems to be more about who will be our leaders, and what coalitions will rise or fall in status as a result. Election media coverage focuses on characterizing the candidates themselves – their personalities, styles, friends, beliefs, etc. You might say this is because character is a cheap clue to the policies candidates would adopt, but I don’t buy it.
The obvious interpretation seems more believable – as with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations. And to the extent we consider policies not tied to particular candidates, we mainly care about how policies will effect which kinds of people will be respected how much.
For example, we want nationalized medicine so poor sick folks will feel cared for, military actions so foreigners will treat us with respect, business deregulation as a sign of respect for hardworking businessfolk, official gay marriage as a sign we accept gays, and so on.