Politics and Politicians : a volatile mix?
Politics is like medicine: sometimes useful, even necessary, in small amounts, but fatal if taken in an overdose. Politicians can be a useful species but are prone to going feral. Democracies often elect either mediocrities or confidence tricksters because large numbers of electors share similar qualities. In practical terms, is there a better way to manage national affairs?
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
One reason is that some of these people may truly be performing some other role, however nominally. They might be titled as university chancellors, or managers of some kind, or the secretary of a sports club, or the pastor of a suburban church. To do any of those things it is very likely that the occupants will have to act in a political manner at least some of the time.
Of course, there are people who are explicitly elected to parliament to represent a community, and so recognized as professional politicians. Even then, their name card will say “member of parliament”, not politician. Indeed, to be elected many will take great trouble to pretend that they are political outsiders, “ordinary people”, not politicians captive to a hidden agenda.
An interesting phrase recently slipped into news analyses. It referred to Hillary Clinton’s problems as a “retail politician”. Implicit in the mention of retail politicians is the working reality that politicians live at least two lives. There is the public face they must present to gain mass acceptance, especially in democracies. Then there is the persona they must exercise as back-room negotiators and deal makers to actually achieve anything. Politics after all is the art of the possible.
The largest part of the public, regardless of the political system, can never accept that the dual persona of politicians is necessary, and there is often a quota of novice politicians who have trouble grasping the duality themselves. More sophisticated stakeholders will examine the behaviour of a politician in both spheres, their attitudes to those respective roles, and how they reconcile inherent conflicts of interest.
2. The backroom role of a parliamentary politician
The members of any trade or profession will assure you that they work hard and earn every cent. Politicians are no exception, and when questioned insist that they work well over the standard 8 hour day or 5 day work week (Brenton 2016; BBC 2011). This may well be true, especially since socializing is intrinsic to their modus operandi. The productivity of a politician has no obvious metric – he or she is not a bricklayer. Much effort may go into unsuccessful attempts at negotiation or compromise, and these failures will detract from the perceived productivity of the politician. Similarly, success may inflate perceptions of effort. Day to day, professional politicians do not act as lone agents. In the Australian federal parliament, each normal politician now has four staffers to perform secretarial functions, handle correspondence, prepare press releases, bring pending legislation to the parliamentarian’s attention, and so on. Ministers of course may have many more.
Another term for a member of parliament is “legislator”, and given the steady volume of new Acts of Parliament (i.e. law) which appear constantly on every conceivable subject it would appear at first glance that these politicians must spend an immense amount of time ploughing through obscure legal language with a critical eye to forestall possible injustices to millions of people living myriad different lives. Certainly there are times when they must attempt just this. I frankly have deep doubts about the constancy of the process, or the depth of comprehension exercised by all the representatives and senators in the Australian parliament, or any parliament. These politicians are a very mixed bunch (as the Australian people are), and few of them show much evidence of being either scholars or workaholics. The courts will always have a busy time making sense of the legislation which comes out of a parliament.
3. Why is there such a thing as politics?
Australians (to take one cultural profile) in face to face shopping are used to paying a fixed price for everything, even if it is a premium price. Dropped for a vacation into some third world market where bargaining is not only expected but a kind of cultural sport, they might feel deeply ill-at ease at first, then overreach in clumsy attempts to “get a bargain”. If they are lucky, a friend with local knowledge might smooth ruffled feelings on both sides and settle a price that buyer and seller can live with. He knows that the market seller lives a precarious life on small margins. He knows that his Western friend is no millionaire on his home turf. He negotiates for the trust of both as an honest broker, or at least the appearance of being an honest broker. Such a friend is the world’s original politician. Stepping through the jungle tracks of history, his skills have mutated in countless ways. The leader of a modern nation state of some tens or hundreds of millions of people must generally survive the conflicting political expectations as either a chameleon or tyrant, but rarely in the common view as an honest man or woman.
Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the practice and theory of influencing other people. Politics involves the making of a common decision for a group of people, that is, a uniform decision applying in the same way to all members of the group. It also involves the use of power by one person to affect the behavior of another person. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (a usually hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities.
The definition of politics is important because the way it is interpreted both by politicians and those affected has a large bearing on the nature of political contests which arise. That is, not everyone agrees about what they believe politics is about, or should be about. From these fundamental differences of purpose we can see that sometimes apparent disagreements about this policy or that really stem from underlying distrust about the objectives of particular actors.
It would be fair at this point for the writer to make a disclosure statement about his own view of desirable political process. By profession and inclination I am a teacher, and my understanding of teaching is that it is not simply about transmitting a particular body of information (information which in spite of official imprimatur might be quite wrong). My idea of teaching is to attempt to bring each of my students to their best possible potential. Since people are so variable, and my own abilities so mixed, this attempt at enhancing a student’s potential requires constant adaptation while always keeping in mind that greater objective. It may be that my graduating students disagree with me in fundamental ways, but if they have developed some significant potential then I have a sense of professional satisfaction.
With this teaching orientation, as a politician my inclination therefore would be to find ways for all the members of a community or nation to meet their greatest potential, diverse as those potentials are, and thus enhance the quality of the nation. Needless to say, this particular vision is not universally shared amongst politicians, or at least when not making motherhood statements to public media.
To consider another profession, salesmen of a certain type might consider that their greatest success also lies through persuasion, but persuasion by means of understanding and exploiting the psychological weaknesses of customers. This salesman and I, each of us setting out to run for political office, are likely to have quite divergent visions of what the political process is about. On particular issues we may cooperate to achieve a limited outcome, but given the ultimate prize of being appointed prime minister or president, we would probably structure national priorities according to our deeper inclinations and beliefs about human character. Privately the salesman might consider me to be pathologically naïve, and I might privately think him to be a scoundrel. In the interests of sharing a tolerable life, we are likely to be polite with each other in public.
There are of course a multitude of other character types given to seeking political office (and after all, most of us are a mixture of parts). Foremost amongst dominant motivations in politics is the drive of those who crave power above all else. Without power, their argument goes, nothing can be achieved (actually that is not true), so power is the ultimate goal at all times.
In fact this power predilection is so common is that it forms the core of the Wikipedia discussion of politics above. A very large proportion of those associated with political activity in connection with governance simply have trouble trusting other politicians who claim not to crave power as an end in itself. If power is the immutable currency of political negotiation and compromise, then fairly stable political equations can be forged, they reason. If something as nebulous as “maximizing human potential” (for example) is claimed as a political objective, then the power driven politician will consider it a fairytale exercise and invest no sincere loyalty in the process. This is the fundamental dilemma of political action. Political venues are and always have been dominated by the power driven political types, ultimately secured in place by the threat of coercion. While this remains the case – and it may always remain the case - any possibility of deep change in the political cycle anywhere seems unlikely.
4. Why do politicians go feral?
If we look over the catalogue of historical leaders in any culture, or even most large commercial organizations, it is plain that a fair percentage of them became a menace to their societies, and in that sense feral. In some cases they had early psychopathological characteristics which, used with cunning and even charm within some closed field of responsibility gave them a particular advantage. For example, the steady hand of many surgeons is reputedly benefited by a psychological indifference to the bodies upon which they are operating. Within the confines of particular organizational roles, the psychopath might approach some difficult role in a usefully dispassionate manner. Let loose as a supreme leader such characters have no compunction about dropping barrel bombs on peoples who are supposed to be under their care. Bashir Assad, the Syrian leader, is a contemporary example amongst many others.
It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Much literature has been built around this theme, yet our civilizations have seemed unable to protect themselves for long against the depredations of power since its agents always have many willing helpers (the impotence of the weak also corrupts them).
Those who come to positions of high authority often show early ability and render great service. In the modern world, for example, Turkey is a complex society with a storied history and much potential for internal conflict. Its current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after some early censure for religious intolerance, won wide support from many segments of the population for his successful efforts at modernizing the country. These efforts required great political skill in negotiation, compromise, and inspiring diverse peoples towards a common cause. Yet the very process of becoming apparently indispensible has modified his personality towards a contempt for all opposition, rash autocratic decisions which put the nation in danger, and a lust for permanent personal ascendancy. Erdoğan is famous for the remark that “democracy is like a tram. You take it to your destination, then get off”. He has gotten off the democracy tram to the point of ordering the construction of an 1150 room palace + guest houses .. Sadly, this sort of thing is not an uncommon political story.
Your mother is different from my mother, so although we share some common ideas about what the word ‘mother’ means, it has all kinds of private overtones (connotations) which we can never share. To some extent this is true of all words in every language. Each of us has a language (technically an idiolect) which is forever private, yet it has enough overlap with the idiolects of other individuals for us to communicate, more or less. The closer those people are to our life experience and personality, the better we can communicate. When I speak English as an Australian, even to an American, much of what we utter becomes miscommunication regardless of our intentions. Conflicts can easily arise.
As with all languages, so it is with political belief and understanding. We all grew up in different households, and perhaps on different continents. When you utter a word like ‘democracy’ I can only guess at what you might mean. The first paragraph of the Chinese Constitution says (in translation) that “China is a democratic dictatorship”. In my idiom, that is incoherent, but perhaps it means something to some citizens of the PRC. Even in my private understanding and experience, democracy is a contested concept. I have written about this at much greater length elsewhere (May 2010, 2013, 2014a, 2014b in the reading list). Here I will just discuss a few particular issues.
Firstly, in anything much larger than a village meeting, our ways of coming to common community decisions will almost always mean that we delegate someone else to speak on our behalf. This someone else is ipso facto a politician. The delegate, the politician, will certainly not be representing only you or me. He or she will also be acting on behalf of many other people, people we might not even like, or people who could have quite opposed interests, such as a landlord and his tenants.
The politician will also have private values, but it is in his interests to at least appear to empathize with as many people as possible. In a country such as Australia, this politician will normally belong to and be subject to the discipline of a political party whose general values are widely known.
Thus, on any particular issue, this politician may be torn in a multitude of directions. It is not possible to please all of the people all of the time, only to pacify some of them, and hope to settle for compromises which do not lead to open revolt. Inevitably, the politician will come to be regarded as insincere by some of the interested parties.
The second major conundrum of democracy is that most people most of the time do not want to participate in anything as complicated as running a country, or even a meeting. Nor do they have the knowledge or experience to do so. They will have opinions on a few issues of personal interest but when probed these opinions are almost always parochial, shallow and uninformed by any research into the topic. There are twenty-four hours in a day, and frankly they would rather spend any free time watching an escapist movie, having a chemical holiday, or otherwise seeking instant gratification. However, they will be offended to have these limitations pointed out to them.
Sooner or later electors will be asked or required (voting is compulsory in Australia) to choose a political representative. They are unlikely to have any significant knowledge of this candidate and only evaluate what he or she is promising from “gut instinct”, a.k.a political advertising influence. In democracies like Australia many of the young who have not known the vagaries of other governance, like tyranny, have even fallen into the habit of saying they would prefer a “benign dictatorship”. That is, they want benefits without responsibility. They scarcely pause to enquire where these benign dictators might be grown. No wonder politicians are apt to become cynical about retail politics, and may seek to manipulate its outcomes for personal gain.
In the late 1960s I was an undergraduate in Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. I had caught a boat to NZ as the cheapest way out of Australia, landed a job washing shirts in a laundry, and after some casual inquiry was astonished to be offered a 90% fees bursary to study. This was a far better proposition than anything I knew about in Australia at the time. It seemed to open the door to some kind of future, though I was friendless, self-consciously dirt poor with no help from home, and had to survive by cleaning pub toilets and beauty salons for 75 cents an hour when not in classes.
Needless to say my political sympathies were not with the privileged, and surveying the timid, narrow minded and frankly dull character of moneyed conservative “elites” on both sides of the Tasman Sea then, I felt no urge to aspire to their company. Nevertheless it hurt to be an absolutely marginal individual in whatever company I chose. Perhaps if I had thrown a brick through somebody’s window a consulting psychologist might have argued that I was obviously vulnerable to bad influences, or skipping forward 50 years, might say today that I needed to be watched in case I skipped off to Syria and became a jihadi.
The truth was that I was open to politicization, but far too much of a skeptic to be swept along in the train of any organized political dream. The takeaway lesson perhaps is that old idiom: it is not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you which counts in the end. What you actually do is a matter of personal character. For millions, it is true that their characters are of the herding kind, so that what they do is indeed to some extent infected by whatever political virus is in the air they breath at a vulnerable age.
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is a small, compact city arranged around the rim of an old sunken volcano. Perhaps in such a place it was not too surprising that the national political life, it’s political actors, tended to have a close physical involvement with the university. The Prime Minister was known to debate with students on the campus from time to time. The late 1960s was the time of the Vietnam war and brats like me were in danger of being shipped off to be shot at if our birthday date came up in a military conscription lottery. This concentrated the mind wonderfully. Our arguments against the war were passionate, coherent and by coincidence deeply self-interested. We were highly politicized and our belief was that if only the general population could have their political consciousness permanently raised then obscenities like stupid wars could never happen.
In retrospect we were right about the Vietnam war. It killed millions of people for no gain, embedded extremist actors in the Vietnamese political scene for a generation, cost America hugely in blood, treasure and humiliation, and left the Australian political class tainted as poodles to bad imperial American policy. In retrospect we, the students, lost hopelessly in politicizing our own populations for more than the blink of an eye, and subsequent history has shown them no wiser or better informed as a group about political judgements. Much later, as a resident of South Korea I took the trouble to read up on Korean history. With almost a thousand years of Confucian institutes, then universities, to look back on it turns out that impassioned student uprisings have played a significant part in the turbulent politics of that peninsular. As we examine the actual causes these students espoused it turns out that more often than not they were reactionary and set the kingdom on a backwards path. With politicization then you are tossing a coin of mass consciousness. How it falls is often in the lap of the gods.
It is true that in the short term totalitarian states can provide certain advantages in mobilizing populations and hastening some kinds of development, especially infrastructure. The 20th Century presented various examples of that, from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, and more recently the Peoples Republic of China, not to mention many smaller states. In each case, the local political paradigm varied somewhat, and was overlain by longstanding cultural characteristics. In spite of differences, it is also clear that this kind of political solution eventually imposed a high cost on what could be called human capital. Innovation became stunted, and wherever the opportunity arose millions of people from these places chose to emigrate to what they saw as jurisdictions offering greater personal hope.
Hope then is a potent motivator, and the political system which can offer that across generations (as opposed to the sugar hit promised by a demagogue) has good prospects of survival.
The public reasons which the leaders of totalitarian states offer for resisting any transition to credible democracy reveal a clue to their weaknesses. Perhaps the most common claim is that the mass of the population is not ready to choose their government wisely. The “not ready” story has a long history. From the time the Gutenberg printing press was invented in Germany (1436) elites and the Christian church were quite sure that ordinary people were ‘not ready’ to read freely, and did everything to prevent it. In the 19th Century, European elites were quite sure that people were ‘not ready’ for democracy. When I was young, England still had the remains of an empire and was gradually giving countries their independence. However many people in England and in the countries themselves argued loudly that those countries were ‘not ready’ for independence; (the people who claimed this most loudly usually had money or some privilege to lose).
Whether it is children, or adults, or whole countries, taking responsibility is a learning process. Mistakes will be made, lessons learned. Gradually competence is approached. Nobody can do it for you, even if they have good intentions. Yes, that is the story of love and life, isn’t it? That is the story of hope.
8. The tales we tell
When I was a 10 year old child, an old lady down the road made me a gift of a year’s bound edition of the London Illustrated News, 1880. It has anchored me from the hysteria of the day ever since. In 1880 the British army had an expeditionary force in Afghanistan to teach the local leader they had more guns than the competing Russian empire. The outlawed bush ranger, Ned Kelly, was on the loose in Australia (eventually to be hung, and thereafter transformed into a folk hero). A marvel of modern engineering, the Tay railway bridge in Scotland collapsed in 114kmh winds, taking a train with it, and became a text book example of civil engineering failure.
In other words, the 1880 London Illustrated News was the usual chronicle of human folly, bad behaviour and bad luck. So what has changed? England survives as a kind of democracy and the population has multiplied. Russia teeters as a quasi-dictatorship with a pretend parliament, a glowering dog-in-the-manger resentment at imagined lost glory, and a national income hostage to the casino of international oil prices. Afghanistan, well, what do you say …
The thing that really hasn’t changed since 1880 is the lusty telling of tales through news media. British politicians huff and puff, hoping their media magnate friends will spin the stories in a way to win them votes. Some do, some don’t. Enough scandal and ineptitude comes to be known, sooner or later, to throw out one bunch of politicians for a while, and usher in the other team with a wry smile. It’s messy, fashions come and go, England muddles on.
In Moscow rude journalists are apt to have a short life expectancy, so the media relentlessly champions the incumbent team, the local quasi-dictator in a suit earns fabulous popularity ratings, his friends wallow in luxury, and a country with 20% of the world’s land area and 143.5 million people has a smaller economy than Italy. Its best imagined triumph is the mass production of weapons of mass destruction.
When nations prosper or nations falter the story of the day is always about good luck and bad luck, natural calamity and heroes to the rescue. However, in the end the problems, the wins and the losses are made by human beings. The way people fashion their lives, from the richest to the poorest, is really a matter of culture. If culture controls lives and fortunes, culture itself is about the stories we tell each other, and the stories we allow to be told.
The discussion began with the idea of an original politician mediating the expectations of a buyer and seller who had different pictures of the world in their heads. The politician told a tale which enabled that buyer and seller to envision an outcome they could both live with. That is what politicians do, when they don’t go feral … So our best hope is to hash out a system which makes it easy for politicians to be good and the rest of us to be decent, some of the time anyway.
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Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).
Politics and Politicians : a volatile mix? ©Thor May February 2016