Most people are not interested in local politics, not even those of New York City. And it’s difficult to get them sufficiently interested to learn enough to be governmentally effective.

This essay doesn’t explain why exactly NYC politics are interesting. But it does explain why anyone who wants to make the city bigger and better will be helpless to do so without a minimum viable understanding of its political system.

I’ll start by asking the reader to consider a regular door. It has hinges, a handle, a locking mechanism, and is a rectangle made of some kind of material.

If I were to ask you, “How do you open the door?” you would probably answer “by turning the handle.”

“Aha,” I say, “but it is locked.”

“Good thing I have the key,” you say,

“But it is locked from the other side!” I continue.

At this point your brow will furrow, and you’ll likely try to remember the credit card trick you’ve heard of for opening doors.

What you’re actually doing is trying to recognize your affordances.1

An affordance is what an object or environment affords an agent. It is not a property of an object, nor is it a capacity of an agent. It is the full range of what is possible when object and agent are considered together as one system.

For example, let us return to the door. If you are a regular adult person, and the door is unlocked, one of your affordances is that you can turn the handle to open it.

But if you were a baby or a young toddler, you wouldn’t be able to reach the door’s handle—it would not have the affordance of turning the handle in a system where the agent is a small child.

To put affordances in other words: they are emergent properties of a system comprising an object and an agent. They are the product of both considered together, and are not a property of either individually.

Back to the door: I’ve just told you it’s locked from the side you’re not on. If you want to open that door, you must discover more affordances, which is to say: you must consider what capacities you have relative to the door.

If you have a screwdriver or a hammer, you could take the door off its hinges.

If you are strong and fast enough, you could ram the door down with your shoulder.

And if you have a flammable liquid and a lighter, you could burn it down. Unless, of course, it’s the door to a vault. In that case none of the affordances above would likely apply. You’d have to consider what other affordances emerge between the door, as it is, and you, with what you are and what you have.

Now, instead of a door, consider the government.

It is a complicated and complex system unto itself, and it also has affordances when considered relative to an agent.

But to discover a more full range of affordances, you’d have to know how the government works, and what its structure was. This is like knowing what a door handle is, etc.

Unfortunately, most of our best and brightest citizens do not know the first thing about NYC’s government. The resulting, bonkers reality is that they cannot do the governmental equivalent of turning a door handle.

But if you do take the time to learn about NYC’s political system, you will find that there are a vast amount of affordances available to you, especially if you augment yourself with more knowledge and connections (the door’s equivalent to bringing a screwdriver or combustible equipment).

If you continue in your ignorance of the NYC political system, you should expect to be no more effective at steering its course than a person who, not understanding the function of a door handle, stares in bewilderment at the rectangular slab blocking their way.

Or, just as likely: if you don’t know how to take a door off its hinges, you’ll default to destroying it somehow. But when it comes to the government, most people are not patient enough to explore their full range of affordances.2 So, they go for the obvious “burn it down” options, which are as ill-advised for the door as they are for the government. Getting a fuller range of affordances, either by teaching yourself about hinges or discovering some other trick, allows you to avoid destruction.

Notes

  1. For more on affordances, see here

  2. Or, in their ignorance, they assume that politics is not a sophisticated field