Politics, policy, and the nuances between

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was a reminder of just how politicized the word ‘political’ has become.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Of course, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t mean his controversial March 4 speech before Congress to be “political.” The Israeli leader insisted, “That was never my intention.”

By the time you read this, dear reader, the controversy may well have disappeared into the rearview mirror. But the flap was a reminder of the many shades of meaning of the word political

In a certain sense, anything a politician does is ipso facto a “political” act. Would a journalist insist that what he or she is doing is “not journalistic”? Do doctors say that what they’re doing is “not medical”?

I note that NPR has a “politics editor” rather than a “political editor.” This may simply reflect a current tendency for adjectives to disappear in favor of nouns used as modifiers. During the 1840s, the United States fought “the Mexican War.” (The Mexicans call it “the US invasion.”) More recently, the US has been involved in something referred to as the “Iraq War.” Had it been fought during the administration of James Polk, it might have been called the “Iraqi War.” 

“Politics editor” may just be following the pattern of “Iraq War.” Or a news organization that gets some money from the federal government may want to avoid a job title like “political editor.” It may be that political has become politicized, in other words.

If so, what about policy? In politics and policy we have a set of fraternal twins, not quite synonyms, covering between the two of them a range of concepts that some languages express with just a single word.

Politics came into English around 1520, meaning the “ ‘science of government,’... modeled on Aristotle’s ta politika ‘affairs of state,’ the name of his book on governing and governments,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. (Of the splendidly ridiculous early variant spellings that the Oxford English Dictionary lists, my favorite is politycques.)

Oxford defines policy thus: “A principle or course of action adopted or proposed as desirable, advantageous, or expedient; esp. one formally advocated by a government, political party, etc. Also as a mass noun: method of acting on matters of principle, settled practice. (Now the usual sense.)”

Politics can refer, rather grandly, to the business of governing, and policy more to the “content” of a particular administration.

In his new memoir, David Axelrod, the political adviser who helped get President Obama elected, relates a dust-up he had soon after the inauguration in 2009 with Rahm Emanuel, the new president’s chief of staff. Mr. Axelrod was fretting that White House insiders were already talking about chucking various commitments Mr. Obama had made during the campaign. This prompted Mr. Emanuel to scream that he was “sick of hearing about the campaign,” and that “the campaign is over.”

It would seem Axelrod had discovered what former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo meant when he said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

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