Reproduced from: http://www.winnfm.com/documents/FR%20Commentary.pdf
TIME FOR A NEW POLITICAL CULTURE
by Felix Redmill
Felix Redmill is a St Kitts-Nevis national who lives in England.
You get a good feeling when all your friends agree with you, but the best friend you can have is the one who will tell you when you’re wrong – or, at least, when they think you’re wrong. But not many people want this. And, it seems, hardly any politicians do.
Years ago, I heard an interview in England with a political commentator. He was asked what would eventually bringdown a long-standing British prime minister and his answer was, “Getting out of touch.” He was referring to the fact that, almost invariably, political leaders do not want contradiction and they surround themselves with yes-men (and, of course, yes-women), who shelter them from any disapproving opinions of the public, and who provide agreement and praise instead of the challenges that are necessary for good decisions, and this leads to bad policies, bad laws, and, overall, bad governance.
When everyone in a group thinks in the same way, we get the psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink” – which mitigates against the detection of flaws in what is proposed and precludes the consideration of opposing opinions. The same effect occurs when they withhold their dissenting views. They may do this in response to a desire for harmony, but also when they feel obliged to conform, and this is what so often happens in politics, either from duty or from fear. Groupthink makes decisions easy, because challenges are few, but challenge is the basis of the most fruitful discussion, so groupthink fails to achieve the best decisions.
Not long ago, I heard a local commentator say that what we need is for our politicians to come together and put aside their differences. I thought, No, that’s not what we need.
Differences are healthy; they are essential. Imagine: if we had no political left wing, where would the centre be? Far to the right. And, similarly, the other way round. And in each case, only a few radicals would be satisfied with the situation.
There are different ways of seeing the world and we need to hear them, and compare them. There are many solutions to a problem, and the most appropriate might come from an unexpected source. And the best solution for a problem in isolation may not be the best one in the circumstances – it may have unintended consequences somewhere else – for in politics many factors need to be considered. So, difference is hugely important if good decisions are to be made. We need our politicians not to put aside their differences but to debate them.
Now, there is no shortage of different points of view, but our adversarial aggression prevents us from bringing them together for separate and joint assessment. And the reason for that is Certainty. Certainty is a terrible sickness. It is contagious and too many of us have caught it.
Certainty produces polarisation and the inability to see points of view that are not our own. This causes debates to take the form of clashes of irreconcilable opposites.
So we need politicians who seek challenges to their ideas, and who are willing to allow that they might be wrong – or that there might perhaps be proposals that are more appropriate in the circumstances. We need them to come together for rational debate in order to arrive at decisions by transcending their differences, not putting them aside.
But how do we overcome the problem of irreconcilable opposites, and what do I mean by “transcend”? By way of explanation, I will offer an example that I gave in our newspapers over 20 years ago.
A significant pair of opposites in politics is Freedom and Equality. They may not at first appear to be opposites, for both are desirable, and we hear politicians glibly demanding both as though they could be achieved entirely and independently. But think about it: each, in the extreme, precludes the other. Extreme Communist regimes offer total equality – but at the expense of personal freedom. Extreme Capitalist ideologies demand total freedom, but at the expense of equality. When they clash, there is polarisation, for which there is no resolution by making demands and shouting political insults. But the opposites can be transcended by more spiritual qualities. This was recognised by the revolutionary who devised the French motto: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Liberty and Equality are two primary demands that citizens make of the state, and the addition of Fraternity – brotherly love – is a reminder that neither can be held in entirety and that a spiritual dimension is required to govern their fair apportionment. The balancing of liberty and equality differs between people, times and circumstances, and it requires debate and compromise.
Our demand should therefore be for honest politicians to put aside their certainty of always being absolutely right, and to wish to test and balance their policies against those of others, in a fraternal atmosphere.
This may at first sound grand, but it is not really such a high ideal. It is the minimum that we should expect of our politicians. Yet, we do not get it. We get partisan politics of the worst kind. If fraternity is absent, there is no possibility of a coming together.
The greater fault lies with our politicians. Their political rhetoric is too seldom intended to convince others that a policy is good and just, and too often aimed only at calling existing supporters to arms and disparaging all who think differently from themselves. Over many years, successive governments have promised political cultural change, but they have failed to deliver it, and our current politicians remain sick with Certainty and trapped in the adversarial culture that their predecessors created – which cannot resolve polarisation because it includes no spiritual dimension.
But we citizens are also to blame, for we seldom demand better. We too suffer from Certainty and we perpetuate the disruptive clashing of opposites without the transcending influence of fraternity.
But it is now time to stop falling for the divisive rhetoric and playing the partisan game. After 31 years of independence, it is time for our country to mature as a democracy, and this demands that we look within ourselves and cure the contagion of Certainty that has been such an impediment to our political progress. How can we continue to believe that any party or individual has a right to be in power? We need to consider the policies and not the personalities – except, of course, when a personality is incompetent or corrupt. We must not only demand change in the way our politicians conduct themselves, we must also change our own ways of political thinking and behaving.
Traditionally, we have supported politicians, even if knowing them to be unsuitable, just because they are in our party. But it is now time to push that blind support into history. If we want a mature democracy, it is we who must create it.
We too must seek to understand, rather than simply dismiss, perspectives and opinions that are different from our own. We should base our discussions more on policies and less on aggressive support of parties. But for that, we need more information from our politicians – and more from our press.
An important component of a democracy is a free press. But its importance lies not only in reporting what has occurred but also in holding power to account, and while our press is often enthusiastic in reporting, it appears much less competent, and less interested, in challenging politicians and turning the topsoil over to discover what lies beneath it. We need our press to be more vigorous in a quest for truth and more questioning on the whys, whats, whens, whos and hows of both the past and the future. Keen and courageous investigative journalism is an essential requirement for change in our political culture, and we should expect it of our press.
As for the politicians, we should expect them to tell us the truth. We should call on them to provide details of their intended policies and we should be cautious when they fail to do so. We should support what we believe to be right and good for the country, and oppose what we believe to be wrong and detrimental. In this way, we give our allegiance to our country and not to a party; we exercise political thinking and judgment rather than submitting ourselves to political servitude.
As long as politicians believe that their followers are blindly partisan, they will respect no boundaries on their behaviour. As long as our politics are defined by division rather than by engagement and debate, our governance will not meet global standards of democracy, and our resources – financial and intellectual – will continue to leak from our country. We need this 31st anniversary of Independence to mark the beginning of a new, more mature political culture, in which we citizens demand a better class of politics, and play our part in achieving it by acting in the ballot box inaccordance with how politicians respond to our demands.