The Nominal Role of the Politician

George Orwell got it all wrong in his famous essay “Shooting An Elephant” when he says that people wanted him to exercise his authority as a policeman in India and shoot an elephant. Orwell says the locals did so because they identified authority with the English. Rather, I would say, they wanted him to assume authority so that the elephant would get shot. He would make the decision, take the risk, get the job done, and take the blame should he mess up. Otherwise, there would have been no end of haggling about who should be appointed to do the job or whether it should be done by a committee. His title was an excuse to do what had to be done, and he had considerable discretion, as all bosses do, about what that title required him to do. Any boss can follow his personality and be more or less aggressive in the policies he asks his subordinates to administer or in how he responds to the demands of clientele. Orwell could have pooh-poohed the request or referred it to local game officials.

That counter-intuitive point about Orwell is widely generalizable. People manage the practical aspects of life through the use of what might be called nominal roles and much of politics is similarly organized, politicians themselves paradoxically the holders of in part nominal roles in that, despite the grandeur of their offices, they are there to create lists of people and otherwise act largely as functionaries. Nominal roles are those where it is clear that the role is no more than a title that has been assigned to a person for the purpose of managing a particular encounter, and so does not constitute an identity which a person takes on or grows accustomed to. A ticket number for a particular seat at a theatre is a nominal role. No one thinks that there is anything to that particular number, even if there is a social class associated with sitting among the more or less expensive seats. On the other hand, being a brother or a sister or an Italian-American or a teenager or a patron of the opera is not a nominal role. It is real because it provides meaning to a person as well as a variety of behaviors that are considered appropriate for someone who is recognized, by self or others, as having that role. Being a policeman is a real rather than a nominal role because it carries with it the authority to use violence, but it is also a nominal role in that it is useful to have someone designated to move people along when they would prefer to gawk at a crime scene.

A queue is a set of people to be served next according to their place in line and can serve as a good example of the way a nominal role works. Their physical presence is simply a marker for their ordinal position. If a person moves slightly off the line, the person behind might enquire about whether the place has been relinquished, and it is even acceptable for a person to ask the person behind to hold the place, as if a marker had been temporarily put down on the place the person occupied in the line. Indeed, on long queues, as when people line up for a limited number of job applications, they may give numbers to one another so that they need not stay in one place or can leave temporarily, but would surrender their place if they were away too long. The particular rules of a queue are adapted to the situation, though the general idea is that one is present as a sign of how much time and inconvenience one has accepted so as to gain a relative standing among those waiting for service. Urban street life is organized through nominal roles. Thoroughfares in any modern city show the extent to which simple systems of red and green lights allow two ton monsters to coordinate with one another as well as with the less sturdy pedestrians who cross their paths.

Role theory might seem to suggest that anarchy takes place when people are without roles, but people are never really without roles. People invent and notice all sorts of nominal and temporary roles. People want access to bank tellers without shouting and a way to travel even to places with which they are unfamiliar. Maps and GPS systems get invented and displayed and a tourist can ask passerbys for help negotiating Paris streets. When people become pedestrians, which is a virtually empty role, indicating no more than that people are taking up room on the streets, that carries with it also a distinct activity even though one not deeply embedded in culture but only part of the social structure. Pedestrians have “natural enemies”. Those are the motorists who might run them over when they cross the street. They also have either places to go or, alternatively, are out on a walk. The role disappears when you get home.  People, to be sure, become aware of other, more permanent, roles that people display wherever they go on their walks, so that the tough looking African American youth seems dangerous and may in fact exploit the ability to be threatening on a potential mugging victim. Women walking alone late at night fight the reputation that they are courting danger. But, for the most part, people on the street are not enveloped in sharply defined and rich roles which allow them to control or know their place, as is the case indoors, when people are bosses and employees or parents and children.

And so anarchy will occur only when people are not caught up in a web of role affiliations, and that never happens. Roles suddenly taken on or asserted make it possible to manage life so that it avoids a descent into Hobbes-like chaos. People become surrogate parents and yell at one another's children to avoid danger; people become good Samaritans so that they can take satisfaction from the inconvenience they put themselves to when they stop to help a driver stuck at a roadside. People become temporary friends when they are stuck in the elevator so that they can help one another pass the time, even if they would not take the liberty, under other circumstances, of kidding people who were mere acquaintances.

Temporary relations, moreover, are not simply descriptions of the way in which the social order is upheld so as to maintain security. They also constitute a moral order in that people take these temporary relations as establishing priorities. Some people or institutions or participants in a conflict are to be given precedence over others as a way of setting strife between the parties. These priorities are matters of right and not just of custom or necessity. They may seem trivial, but that is the whole point: that moral relations are sometimes no more than the establishment of a nominal priority, like insisting that African Americans in the Jim Crow South move out of the way of white people coming down the street. Such priorities are the basis for placing blame, getting upset or righteous, and doing all of the other things that go along with being moral. A lot of morality, therefore, can be reduced to the practical need for establishing priorities and is no more than the establishment of practical priorities. The moral basis for a society, that people feel comfortable and acceptant of the social order, does not require any great wealth or subtlety of culture or history, no common set of values nor common character, but simply the concessions that people make to one another to live just this side of a state of anarchy, however fraught that is with the real roles of caste and other forms of social structure. Sitting in the back of the bus, after all, could be seen as just a way to assign seats, no different than giving front seats to the shortest children in the class so as to insure that students will not argue over placement or being not seated next to a friend. And the nominal role of a conscription lottery number, also supervised by government, can decide if the draftee lives or dies. The whole point of the exercise is to make a life and death choice as indifferent as possible to the actual persons involved.

Max Weber told just part of the story when he defined authority, to sum up the process he described, as the awe that surrounds a person or a role so that someone else--a subject, a citizen, a member of the laity-- is willing to follow the advice of that person. Yes, authority does mean giving people portentous titles that allow them to exert authority,  but it also means selecting someone for whatever good or bad reason just so that there is someone there to take responsibility, whether or not that person is held in high regard.

Authority is also established for the most part by making it a nominal assignment. People are made traffic cops or get hold of the red sash or the blue conch of authority so that someone will take charge and can be blamed for doing the wrong thing. That happens with even the highest of offices, and so that makes of them nominal roles in that someone, usually someone dispensable, has to fill it. Politicians are people who struggle up the greasy pole so that, for a moment, they can become the subject, perhaps, of adoration or, then again, perhaps of blame. Great leaders like FDR know they can lead the American people into World War II only when they are good and ready to go to war. Presidents take credit for job growth or the blame for depressions and the policies they follow may or may not be the best way to deal with a decision.  Politicians swear an oath and become President or governor, which is very different from inheriting a kingship, which is regarded as a very deep kind of identity, even if the politician has spent forty years in the game before he becomes a figure capable of having an impact on history, his entire career devoted to putting him on standby for a significant undertaking-- and by that time he may have lost whatever taste he had for the office or judgment he had to exercise the office. Moreover, the idea that anyone can be President suggests that the office holder is a cipher who will do what the people want him to do, leaving it up to the incumbent to decide what the population really wants rather than just says it wants. The office is nominal also in the sense that it does not go to a person but can be claimed by a person only for the length of a term at which point the title is passed to the next person elected. There is no right to retain the office in a democracy. That is a major change in the whole idea of government, and it leads to short administrations rather than long reigns, which is what monarchists hope for so as to provide continuity of administration as well as in the hope of reducing the frequency of the succession crises that occur when the old monarch dies. The Founding Fathers were brave enough to think that the United States could survive a succession crisis every four years and preferred to think that the system could withstand even the selection of a not very good person for one Presidential term. We are presently seeing the test of that proposition.